For long stretches of The Woman In Black, a period ghost story starring Daniel Radcliffe, the hero tiptoes warily around a baroque, decrepit manor on the English moors. The sequences are wordless set pieces of old-fashioned, haunted-house horror, where tension is pressurized like the gaseous content of a shook up soda can and then released with some on-cue jump-scare or disturbing image. Most of the time, nothing scary is actually happening, but each payoff is carefully timed with a jolting crescendo of musical accompaniment. Constructed as if from a blueprint, The Woman In Black does manage to spook you, but with its calculated sound design and tried-and-true clichés, it makes you very aware of exactly why it’s working.
The film’s showcase haunt is a gothic estate isolated on a sandy peninsula far from the nearest town—the population of which shudder at the mere utterance of its name: Eel Marsh House. Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps is the cash-strapped young father who journeys into the foggy abyss—despite the warnings of the town’s people—to finish some paperwork and get the abandoned plot ready for auction. Of course, the place is not really empty. It’s inhabited by the titular ghoul, a peeved femme in a mourner’s gown and vale who terrorizes squatters and townies as retribution for some perfunctory past injustice.
As you can tell from a mere synopsis, The Woman In Black is pretty by-the-book; in fact, it’s so much so that it becomes a lesson in effectual but witless fright filmmaking. To raise the creepy-factor, the woman’s victims—all children—make up an army of cadaverous minions. A child’s bedroom at the top of the stairs wouldn’t be complete without a rocking chair that rocks itself. The floors and walls are littered with demonic figurines courtesy of the Hollywood Evil Toy Co.
Radcliffe, in his first post-Potter leading role, still looks like something of a child himself, despite an attempt at grizzled facial hair and muttonchops—although, it does work in his favor. Cherubic and sweetly intoned, Kibbs comes off as appropriately vulnerable where another actor might have played him with too much manly aplomb. For subtext, Radcliff steals a chapter from DiCaprio’s book and plays Kibbs as a haunted widower. Memories of his wedding day prompt his ethereal bride (the woman in white) to cameo as an angel in this hellish playground.At times, the movie can be effectively chilling and atmospheric. It also makes clever use of framing. You may just catch a glimpse of something sinister in the corner of the screen. Shooting for the kind of moody thriller that patiently toys with its audience, director James Watkins gets you excited not by what you saw, but what you thought you saw. Although, The Woman In Black never adds up to much more than momentary goose bumps. Mostly, it’s a diverting and well-produced haunted-house throwback that scares you despite the fact you’ve seen it a hundred times before.