The “less is more” approach is a method that still remains effective and in the horror genre, recent hits like Paranormal Activity and Insidious are perfect examples. Just when you thought Daniel Radcliffe had finally left the world of the supernatural behind with the Harry Potter series coming to an end last summer, the wide-eyed actor returns in “the old dark and haunted house” horror yarn, The Woman in Black. Radcliffe’s tenure as “the boy who lived” no doubt exposed him to every visual f/x trick and gimmick known to man, but director James Watkins takes a minimalist approach to Jane Goldman’s adaptation of the Susan Hill novel.
After ten years on the Potter films, those big eyes of Radcliffe’s are not as bright as they used to be, looking appropriately weary as he plays young widower Arthur Kipps, a lawyer sent by his firm to a seaside village in early 20th century England. Leaving his four year old son behind in London, Kipps has been sent to settle the legal affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow at the mysterious Eel March House. The decaying Victorian mansion is cut off from the mainland whenever the tide comes in, but Kipps discovers that the townsfolk stand in his way as well. The inn where his firm made a room reservation suddenly has no vacancies, parents gather up their children at the sight of him and he’s starts to get the idea that no one really wants him there. Wealthy landowner Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds) is the only person who shows Kipps any kindness, urging him to finish his affairs quickly before the locals make any trouble.
The locals are the least of Kipps’ problems after he ventures out to the mansion and begins seeing things that may or may not be there. One think Kipps is certain that he has seen is a veiled woman clad in black wandering the property. When Kipps returns to the mainland, the locals are ready to run him out of town as he witnesses the death of a young child. It seems the village has a history of its children dying, most of them after a sighting of the woman in black. The villagers believe more will die due to Kipps’ presence and slowly but surely they do. Daily believes its all superstition, but even he mysteriously lost a young son years earlier, leaving his wife (Janet McTeer) mentally unstable. Hinds, who it always seems is playing a character with secrets, gives his character the right amount of texture despite his limited screen-time.
Radcliffe doesn’t really play detective in this film as Harry Potter would, but in time he does go searching for answers and is even bold enough to spend a night alone at the mansion. Watkins establishes Eel Marsh House as a truly dreadful place where something terrible happened years before and still lingers. Surrounded by dusty antiques and decaying dolls with vacant looks in their artificial eyes, Radcliffe slowly descends into an environment that grows increasingly creepy and even hostile. Watkins doesn’t rely too much on visual f/x – one of the scariest images is a flash of what appear to be dead children standing in the rain – but he builds enough tension to make you pay attention to the corners of the film frame in the event something scary might jump out.
Ultimately, the story takes the familiar and generic path when Radcliffe unravels the mystery of who the woman in black really is and what she might want. We were bound to find out sooner or later as the mystery involves a past tragedy that actually makes us sympathize with the title character. But Radcliffe’s solution to stopping her is not only ridiculous and far-fetched, there’s no guarantee it’s going to work. Radcliffe is still growing as a film actor, but as a stage veteran, those skills are a perfect fit for this material since The Woman in Black feels like a stage play at times. It doesn’t take much screen-time for us to get the sense that we know his character and understand that other than his son, he’s had little joy in his life since the loss of his wife in childbirth. Many moments in this picture play like a silent movie and Radcliffe’s stage experience gives him an edge, enabling him to command a scene or establish a mood without saying a word.
Tim Maurice-Jones’ wonderful images present the locale as a place that feels spiritually drained. It’s almost as if the fog that covers the town and Eel Marsh House is a character itself, sucking the life out of anything and making the daytime feel just as terrifying as the night. In the end, The Woman in Black turns into your typical ghost story, but there’s some clever scares and enough creep-out moments along the way that makes it effective more often than not.