The Woman in Black should satiate those looking to see Daniel Radcliffe wandering down dark hallways for an hour and a half, but that’s about it. This is one unimaginative, largely scare-free experience that exploits every haunted house cliché known to man, down to boo scares with random animals and the always-dependable pale-faced youth peering suspiciously out the window for no reason whatsoever. It’s too bad, because the film does achieve a certain atmospheric quality in its Victorian-era secluded setting, but director James Watkins never seems much interested in doing anything beyond ordinary.
Adapted from the 1983 novel by Susan Hill, the film centers around Arthur Kipps, a young attorney whose everyday life is riddled with grief. His wife died while giving birth to their son, and he’s struggling at his job. In an effort to prove he’s still devoted, Kipps reluctantly agrees to travel to the home of a recently deceased widow to settle her legal affairs. What he discovers is a small, secluded town that is having a big problem with child deaths. As Arthur digs deeper he soon realizes that all of the deaths are connected by a mysterious woman in black.
Creepy only in its few moments of psychological horror, The Woman in Black is really nothing more than a jump scare marathon. Why Watkins chose this route with a decidedly excellent production design is beyond understanding. This is done by the book, right down to the “startling” revelation of a person who is standing where they are for no reason other than to “startle” someone, creepy toys, and menacing nursery rhymes. Watkins is skilled in working with backgrounds and visual revelations, but there is a distinct difference between being scared and being startled. The film is far more interested in the latter, and it’s pumped up by Marco Beltrami’s boisterous score.
The unevenness of the story is also prevalent throughout, leading up to a hardly-satisfying conclusion. None of this is really the fault of Daniel Radcliffe, making his first post-Potter appearance. He has very few speaking lines and it really gets tough to believe he’d stick around an obviously-haunted town and house, let alone go mud-diving for bodies. He’s certainly more engaged with the town’s secrets than any viewer.
More of a blown opportunity than anything else, The Woman in Black dismisses its creepy locale and atmosphere in favor of jack-in-the-box jump scares aimed squarely at the teen demographic. It’s one thing when a shock is pertinent to the story, but it’s something else when it’s nothing more than a gimmick to elicit the popular “scream-then-laugh” audience reaction. The Woman in Black seems like it would be above all of this, but it’s more interested in playing classy than being classy.
Studio: CBS Films
Length: 95 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and violence/disturbing images.
Theatrical Release: February 3, 2012
Directed by: James Watkins
Written by: Jane Goldman. Based upon the novel by Susan Hill.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer, Misha Handley, Liz White