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Movie Review: THE WOMAN IN BLACK Offers Good-Looking, Empty Scares

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As a visual experience, The Woman in Black deserves a cursory once-over from horror fans.  Director James Watkins coats his ghost story in dank, blue fog and endless shadows; it seems fitting that Hammer co-financed the film because its aesthetic is extremely reminiscent of Tomb of Dracula or the Curse of Frankenstein.  And Kave Quinn’s production design of the central haunted house – the forebodingly-named Eel Marsh – is a marvel, and deserves comparison with Elliot Scott and John Jarvis’ work on the 1963 Haunting.

Every room rots and sags, as if the house were an undead entity propelling its decaying corpse to action through sheer force of will, with horrors subtle (the pervasive, peeling wallpaper) and otherwise (a king-size bed that turns into a dripping bog).  None of the details are realistic, and one could carp on the logistics of, say, a child’s nursery covered in the most frightening toys I have ever seen (seriously, I can still picture this clown doll with a face frozen in a melting, hideous leer when I close my eyes), but they do unsettle, and that’s all one can ask from in a horror movie.

Pity that the rest of the film doesn’t rise to the production design’s quality.  Watkins’ biggest sin is one all-too common in contemporary horror: he equates jump scares with true terror.  We get ghastly faces appearing out of nowhere and birds suddenly flying into frame and doors slamming open/shut and sometimes, we get something completely innocuous, but we jump anyways because of the musical stings goosing the soundtrack.

Of the many scares unleashed on the audience, maybe three (four, tops) played off of good, old fashioned suspense, the most effective one being a hallway that grows ever darker as the titular apparition moves through it, and Daniel Radcliffe’s hero can’t get out of the way because he’s too terrified to move.

I’ll admit, taste factors into the equation.  Slow-burning, insidious scares like the aforementioned hallway scene frighten me because they present a horror that violates all traditional notions of common-sense and intelligence.  We see something we can’t believe (even better, we think we see something), we process it, yet we are powerless to act.  That horror unmoors the viewer, and the great chillers (Black Sunday, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Alien) want to use fear to challenge our perception.

Something that flies out of nowhere and goes, “Boo”?  We jump as a reflex and not because we sense reality’s grasp on our world beginning to slacken.  The Woman in Black offers frights with cattle-prod savagery; we scream because, physically, we have to, not because we want to, and that sort of overt manipulation just exhausts me after a while.

If the film had a stronger center, the scares might hold together better, but Daniel Radcliffe’s wan, underwhelming lead performance does no one any favors.  Screenwriter Jane Goldman (of Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class fame) writes his Arthur Kipps a meaty, full-throated character arc: still reeling from the childbirth-related death of his wife, the young lawyer gets an unlikely shot at redemption when he heads to Eel Marsh to settle the paperwork for its deceased owner and ends up trying to prevent a malevolent specter from murdering the surrounding town’s children.  On the page, I bet Kipps endures the litany of frights that the Woman in Black throws his way with a courage that’s both heroic and suicidal – how valuable can his own life be if he’s already lost the most important part of it?

Except Radcliffe registers nothing.  Zip.  He doesn’t look particular suicidal or scared or courageous or tired or sad or hungry or alive.  Radcliffe is like the most expensive piece of set decoration ever made, with Watkins moving him from scene-to-scene and then popping him back in the supply closet at the end of the day.

I’ll tell you a story.  On the commentary track for the first Alien, Ridley Scott talks about how important a job Sigourney Weaver has at the climax; for seventeen dialogue-free minutes, Weaver – whose character is the last human alive, so she can’t even share the burden with another actor – has to act terrified and convey that terror viscerally to the audience in order to sell the overall movie.

Well, Radcliffe probably has sixty minutes where he is the whole show, and the best he can muster is an opaque airlessness.  He negates the fear.  His principal co-stars, the great Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer, do such a better job of registering panic: I began to yearn for them to take over the film and educate Mr. Potter in the art of acting scared.

If you’re really jonesing for a ghost story, I highly recommend Ti West’s The Innkeepers.  In it, we follow two likable and extremely vulnerable protagonists as they investigate a supernatural happening in a haunted house, and the scares are patient and slow burning and deeply frightening.  The Innkeepers acts as a corrective to everything The Woman in Black gets wrong, and, naturally, it made almost no money at the box office, while The Woman in Black‘s funhouse noise garnered over $50 million.  It’s a shame; we claim to love scary movies, but we avoid that which can truly frighten us, and the wheel goes round and round.

At least the Blu-ray looks great.  The level of detail and richness to Watkins’ widescreen lensings and soundscape (with its 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track) is impressive, and the best reason to rent The Woman in Black.

Bonus supplements are of high quality.  We get a thorough commentary track with James Watkins and Jane Goldman; two solid BTS featurettes (“Inside the Perfect Thriller” and “No Fear: Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps”); and an UltraViolet Digital Copy.

If you enjoy being scared by a jack-in-the-box, check out The Woman in Black.  All others: stay away.

The Woman in Black streets today.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.