The UK Hammer Films once dominated the horror film genre before a nearly thirty-year slump. The Woman in Black is not the first film in the studio’s revival, but it is certainly their best effort so far. Adapted from a 1983 novel of the same name, the film does not entirely rely on story or dialogue, but utilizes a visual form of filmmaking that trades gore for suspense.
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a single father after his wife died giving birth to his son. He is in financial trouble and his employer has placed him on thin ice. He is sent to the Eel Marsh House and its accompanying town to clean up the estate’s loose ends after Alice Drablow’s death. Arthur is not given a warm welcome in town or at Eel Marsh island, experiencing paranormal activities after he briefly spots a Woman in Black. Children have been committing suicide for dozens of years in the town, a superstition that the townspeople have taken to heart. Arthur befriends Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), whose own son had committed suicide years prior, and only Daily seems to assist Arthur’s work at Eel Marsh.
The Woman in Black travels across familiar territory; a lone man enters an isolated village that has been haunted by one or more prior tragedies. What makes the film so riveting is the reduced amount of dialogue, and in turn, story. The narrative is rather short, but the what fills up the time between the beginning and the end are long passages of suspenseful paranormal activities that Arthur cannot explain or keep up with. The town is in constant mourning as tragedy after tragedy shakes the town thanks to a correlation between someone seeing the Woman in Black and the suicides of young children.
Common tropes take over: shadows in mirrors, creepy children who appear and disappear, moving objects without a medium to actually make them move. There is nothing all that new or original. The film sure is creepy thanks to the aforementioned tropes, but the music and an incredibly dark picture drive the melancholic nature home. The isolation that Arthur experiences is similar to that of the Woman in Black, who was kept from her own child. Furthermore, Eel Marsh is situated on a tidal island with a road that disappears during the high tide. A similar location is used in the Roman Polanski film Cul de Sac. Both films prevent the main character(s) from leaving no matter how urgent the situation is.
The Woman in Black is a rarity these days. Returning to the traditional Hammer Gothic style, the film may not speak to audiences as much as the torture porn films, or even the popularity of the Paranormal Activity franchise, although it does dip its toes in the same pool. Just like the narrative and the dialogue lacks an precedence, so does Radcliffe’s performance. He is merely a spectre in the film like the one that haunts his character, and the sporadic facial hair still does not hide his Potter baby face. The performance is in the chills and spooks of the film, but that alone is not enough to recommend the film. The lack of a dominate story or dialogue are the only elements that make this film stand out among the plethora of other Western horror films.
The paranormal revenge story with overcast skies, creepy children, and despondent townsfolk has been done to death. Some may remember the 2001 film The Others which also featured the same same horror elements, except The Others had a delightful twist. The Woman in Black attempts to re-purpose the common horror elements and exploit the growing trend in the paranormal. Even if Hammer Films has done a much better job with this effort, their glory days are far, far behind.