Sunday, February 5, 2012

At the Cinema with a Woman in Black

Not being much for football, I went out this evening and caught the new Hammer film, The Woman in Black.

I'd read Susan Hill's novel a long time ago, and have forgotten much about it, so I can't say how true to the source this is...but damn, this is one spine-chilling film. Literally. After one jolt, I actually felt my spine tingling, not something that happens that often.

In a nutshell, it's the story of widowed lawyer Arthur Kipps, who travels to a remote village to settle the estate of a wealthy widow. The villagers are unfriendly, and he spends long hours in her house going through her papers. The house is isolated, located on an island in a marsh, accessed only by a causeway that's drowned at high tide. There's a string of deaths of children in the town, and Kipps sees the phantom figure of a woman in mourning clothes skulking about the island. He comes to connect her story to that of the deaths of the children, and must solve the mystery...before his own son comes to visit in a few days.

It's actually remarkable for an old-fashioned haunted-house movie to hit theaters like this these days. And a period piece, set in the Edwardian era, about the mid-1910s. This is like Hammer in its golden days, historic horror done at a breathless pace. It's also unusual for Hammer, which despite its many horrors, never actually did a ghost movie.

It's relentlessly suspenseful, and Kipps' night in the haunted house is an unending orgy of horrors. And it sometimes defies expectations. There's a great scene where he hears a rocking chair moving inside the locked nursery. He finally gets in, and we see the rocking chair rocking...and normally, it would stop dead, or simply not be moving. But here, the chair continues to rock, and is only the beginning of the harrowing events.

Daniel Radcliffe shucks Harry Potter for this, and he pulls it off well. The villagers are called on to do one-note performances, but a couple who are Kipps' only friends in the weird place are good. The settings are remarkably naturalistic; I feared a Tim Burton-esque Addams Family fantasia of overdone gothic fakeness, but that was thankfully avoided in favor of settings that could actually looked real and believable. And for all I knew, were.

This is good intense stuff, and I hope it does well. It's the sort of thing I'd love to see more of. This isn't slasher killers and gore, but good supernatural horror. (It's occasionally reminiscent of Asian horror films, but only occasionally, and that's probably more coincidence than anything.) The Woman in Black isn't high art, and there's little deeper meaning to it, but it's a fine example of craft. See it and have fun.

(EDIT: As soon as I posted this, Roger Ebert tweeted a link to a story about how the house and settings were done. Turns out to be a real house, the village was a real one in Yorkshire, and there was a huge attention to detail. The toys in the nursery were all genuine antiques from the period. They also looked into macabre Victorian corpse photography [propping up a dead relative or child and taking their photo as a memento] and other aspects of the story. It's good fun; read it here.)

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