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The Woman in Black reaches back into the horror-movie past, long before mad slashers and crazed gore frenzies infested the genre, to present us with an unapologetically old-fashioned haunted-house exercise. The picture pays vivid tribute to the fog-choked byways and richly decorated interiors of the old Hammer horror films (and is in fact the first release by that newly resurrected studio after some 30 years of commercial hibernation). But it also partakes of the narcoleptic pacing that hobbled some of those old pictures, and so despite this movie’s stylish design and agreeably vintage frights, it is also, sad to report, kind of boring.
The story is derived from a 1983 novel by Susan Hill that was previously adapted for British TV and radio, and has been running in a London stage version for more than 20 years. Clearly there’s an audience for this time-tested material; it only remains to be seen whether it’s an audience that also goes to the movies.
The setting is vaguely Victorian (although a briefly glimpsed newspaper story about Arthur Conan Doyle’s conversion to spiritualism would place it closer to the 1920s). Daniel Radcliffe, in his first post-Potter film role, plays Arthur Kipps, a morose young lawyer still shattered by the death of his wife in childbirth four years earlier. He is dispatched by his London office to the faraway village of Crythin Gifford, there to organize the estate of a recently deceased old woman. Arriving by train in the grim, unwelcoming village, he makes his way to her even grimmer residence—a dismal stone mansion situated in nearby marshlands at the end of a long road that’s submerged by high tides for many hours of each day.
Thus isolated, Kipps gets right to work. Sorting through records and letters, he eventually learns that the dead woman once had a young son; he died at an early age and ever since, a large number of local children have mysteriously followed suit. If it need be said, these dead kids are not really gone—nor is another notionally departed figure, a black-veiled woman who lurks in the surrounding forest, staring up through the rain and sometimes, alarmingly, making her way inside the house, where she peers out of high windows to spectral effect.
Considerable stretches of this 95-minute movie are devoted to Kipps creeping through spooky corridors with candle held high, summoned by strange knocks and rumblings and sudden shrieks, and unsettled by bloody footprints, dangling corpses and pallid children who clearly mean him no good. The picture is thick with decrepit atmosphere, and director James Watkins (Eden Lake) clearly savors it. He has a tight, cleanly fashioned script to follow (by Jane Goldman, who also worked on Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class), and some effective actors (especially Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer as a local landowner and his dotty wife). But the story’s unvarying predictability, additionally lumbered by Radcliffe’s glum and inexpressive performance, becalms the proceedings. Viewers new to this venerable genre may find its quaintness refreshing; those with longer memories might not. Two guys filing out of the screening I saw were divided. “That was really scary,” one of them said. To which his companion replied: “I fell asleep.”