January 31, 2012

Woman In Black

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Guttering candles. Pale faces at windows. Mysterious noises from upstairs. They’re a few of the things commonly found in a classic ghost story, and Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman In Black contained all of them. A spectral mystery in the tradition of MR James, Hill’s novel was the subject of a popular stage play, a 1989 TV movie, a couple of radio adaptations, and now a new Hammer production starring Daniel Radcliffe.

 The question is, how is it possible to adapt such a traditional story in a way that modern audiences will find even remotely frightening? Many of the ghost story trappings listed above are now so familiar, and so constantly parodied, they’re almost cosy, like an episode of Heartbeat or Highway To Heaven.Director James Watkins’ answer to this problem is simple: there’s nothing wrong with the familiar and the generic, as long as the material’s approached with enthusiasm and conviction. The result is a modern supernatural horror that is old-fashioned yet extremely effective.It shouldn't work, but somehow it does. Kipps, you will be astonished to learn, does not get a good night's sleep when he stays over at Eel Marsh House. Cruel-eyed dolls, loud bangs, a bloody creature in the bedsheets ...Watching him blunder around the haunted mansion is like being strapped into an unhinged fairground ride: scary, funny and genuinely jolting.

 The film’s reconstruction of the austere late Victorian age, all bustling dresses, starched suits and oak furniture, is great, too – though there are a few anachronisms dotted about if you really want to nit-pick. Some of the dialogue is more 21st than 19th century (a child would never address an adult they'd just met by their first name, for example), and I was rather alarmed at the almost total absence of hats.Does that bode ill for Radcliffe, an actor desperate to break with the past? (The Woman In Black marks his first appearance in a big-budget, non-HP movie). The project won't silence his critics. It should, however, swing floating voters. His occasional woodenness fits with the schlock and when he's good, he's gripping. Seems there's life in the old boy yet. Harry Potter, RIP.

 Nevertheless, The Woman In Black is a direct, simple ghost story told with real energy. It’s also great to see the Hammer name appear at the start of a film once again – now there’s at least one ghost from the past I’m genuinely glad to see looming out of the darkness

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