In 1989, British audiences saw a made-for TV movie about a young solicitor (lawyer) who was sent to a tiny, isolated village on the salt marshes to settle the estate of a childless woman who had recently died. What he found, when he got there, was a village full of people who shied away from him and refused to talk . . . and a mysterious woman in black whom he saw lurking about. It was a classic Gothic tale, and this 2012 remake starring Daniel Radcliffe offers the same straightforward haunted house story, with nothing fancy added.
That there are no additional wrinkles or pyrotechnics is a little surprising, given the baggage that audiences would be lugging into theaters once they saw Radcliffe’s name on the marquee. After all, the “Harry Potter” films were so jammed full of special and visual effects that almost every frame seemed magical. If you watch this expecting the same sort of thing from director James Watkins (“Eden Lake”), you’ll be disappointed.
“The Woman in Black” plays very much like one of the subtler B movies that Hammer produced during the Sixties—like “The Witches,” for example, where a single supernatural element is inserted into a heavily Gothic atmosphere and the pacing is more of a slow simmer than a roiling boil. Certainly, all the Gothic elements are here: the supernatural; a setting so strong and powerful that it functions as a character; a haunted house; an isolated village that time seems lost in time; a slightly creepy servant or assistant who may be evil or good; town-wide secrets; mirrors, cobwebs, and black birds; fog, darkness, and shadows; loud, sudden noises; uncomfortable silences; attics, basements or dungeons; suspicious accidents and/or deaths; and an element of strangeness so powerful that it evokes a strong sense of mystery. Something is happening to some of the children in this foggy little town by the marshes, and the residents seem to know.
Another essential element of the Gothic tale is a hero whose inclination is to light a candle and enter rooms that would make the rest of us run away. Without him, there’s no tension and no potential horror. I mean, I don’t care how much my boss in London said my job depended on it. If I arrived in a little town where the innkeeper already knew about me and refused me a regular room, but I was offered the attic—where dolls and such were still set up, as if little girls had just been living there—and if the house I was to investigate the next day was an isolated mansion on a spit of land isolated and accessible only during low tide, I probably would have gone straight back to London and told my boss to go straight to hell. Certainly, if I were foolish or drunk enough (notice how “curious” isn’t an option?) to enter the house, or even spend the night with no bet providing the impetus, I wouldn’t go into a dark room in which I heard a noise, nor would I move to follow a spirit that turned up.
Obviously, I’ll never be the hero in a Gothic horror movie. But Radcliffe does an amazing job—and I say “amazing” because it’s no small feat to make us forget that he’s Harry Potter, which he does in short order. His performance is an asset to a film that, otherwise, is pretty by-the-numbers. There’s not as much mystery or tension as there could have been, and though David Edwards of the Daily Mirror cautions “Don’t watch it alone” on a box blurb, and Claudia Puig of USA Today called it “a spine-tingling tale,” I didn’t find it terribly frightening. It’s more moody and atmospheric than it is mysterious or scary, even with a third act that picks up steam and delivers a satisfying ending—which, again, reminded me of those Sixties’ Hammer outings.
The woman in black features beautiful cinematography and, given all the fog and darkness, an impressive visual presentation. The AVC/MPEG-4 encode offers only a few instances of aliasing and a few scenes where the grain is more noticeable than in others. For the most part it’s a consistently strong transfer that showcases well-defined edges and enough detail to give texture to the film, even in murky scenes. “The Woman in Black” is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that unfortunately relies on the trickery of SUDDENLY RAMPING UP THE VOLUME REALLY LOUD in potentially scary moments. Uncomfortably loud. Then you turn down the volume, and turn it back up again so you can hear the people talking in whisper-mode. I wouldn’t exactly call it sonic splendor, because the bass could have had a little more presence. Occasionally a sound seems so separated from the rest that you’re conscious of it coming out of a speaker, rather than a room. But overall the tonal quality is superb and the sound is channeled nicely across the speakers to give a sense of a wide sound field. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
In addition to an UltraViolet copy there’s a full-length commentary from director Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman that covers all the bases and confirms, basically, that they were making an old-fashioned ghost story rather than a modern-day horror film. Two other short features are provided: “Inside the Perfect Thriller: Making The Woman in Black,” and “No Fear: Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps.” Both are fascinating for the behind-the-scenes footage of Radcliffe, whom we’ve seen so much of as Potter that we get a voyeuristic pleasure glimpsing him as someone else.
I can’t say that I found myself on the edge of my seat watching “The Woman in Black” or that I jumped at all . . . or even twitched. If you’re looking for nail-biting horror and suspense, this isn’t the ticket. But it is a nicely filmed atmospheric study in the Gothic. Mostly, “The Woman in Black” shows that Radcliffe will have no problem shedding his Potter image.