Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer and Liz White. Written by Susan Hill and Jane Goldman. Directed by James Watkins. Rated PG-13.
When it comes to horror-movie villains, ghosts may be the most truly frightening adversaries to contemplate. At least you can stab a serial killer back, and we all know what to do with vampires and werewolves (run, at least if their names are Edward and Jacob). But if one of those pissed-off paranormal types starts haunting you, you really can't do shit except try to make it happy. And so, if a ghost story is done well, it can make for a pretty good film. Fundamentally, the ghost story in The Woman In Black is done well, and its genuinely chilling moments help to compensate for some weaker elements in the film.
The film follows lawyer and widowed father Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), who travels from his home in London to an isolated countryside village to attend to the affairs of a recently deceased client, Alice Drablow. When he arrives, he finds the town's parents vigilantly protecting their children, living in fear after a spate of mysterious suicides and accidents involving kids. Spending time at Drablow's house, Arthur begins to investigate, uncovering the truth about a ghostly "woman in black" and her connection to the deaths. Still grief-stricken over the loss of his own wife and concerned for his own child, Arthur hatches a plan to placate the angry spirit for good.
Director James Watkins and his crew orchestrate the film's scares well. There are plenty of obvious scare moments (Look, he's standing at the window! Look, now a ghost is standing right behind him and he can't even see it!), and yes, they're freaky and nicely done. But the film also scores by working in plenty of subtle creepiness, both in general atmosphere and in its use of ghostly characters. Not only do you get the big scares, but there's a satisfyingly unsettling enjoyment to be found in keeping an eye on mirrors, shadows and blurred figures just out of frame. (And kudos to the production's designers for putting together one hell of an effective, creepy-cool haunted house for those shadows and blurred figures to populate.) Subtract points for the sledgehammer musical cues used to score many of those big-scare moments though.
And then there's Harry Potter. Radcliffe gives a mostly decent performance and creates a sympathetic character in this, his first post-Potter film outing. But there's a certain lack of credibility in Radcliffe as a father and widower. Radcliffe has been a few years ahead of his character in the Potter movies for a while now, and he's been pulling the "playing younger" trick too long to start convincingly playing older so suddenly. Radcliffe is surrounded by a talented supporting cast; Hinds and McTeer both bring great personality to their relatively small roles.
The film ends on a rather odd note that's simultaneously surprising, chilling, abrupt and overly tidy. I haven't read the 1983 book the film is based off of, but a synopsis of the novel makes it sound as though author Susan Hill let certain events play out a little more before reaching this conclusion. There's quite a tense buildup to the climactic confrontations preceding it, and the film rushes straight from the resolution of those events to this ending like it just can't wait to get there. For a movie that otherwise builds atmosphere quite well, the final note is a bit underwhelming. But overall, The Woman In Black does what a good ghost movie should: give you some well-deserved shivers and make you wonder a little bit about what evil spirit might be peering over your shoulder next time you look out a window.