The Woman in Black – 2 1/2 Buckets
Is it possible for an entire genre to be played out? That’s the question I had when watching The Woman in Black, which is, in nearly every objective sense, an old-fashioned ghost story done right. The atmosphere is spooky, the art direction impeccable, the sense of respect for the foundational films that came before it undeniable – and yet, every time a classic jump scare arose, I was unmoved. In fact, aside from its surprisingly poetic final scene, the entire production feels as muted as the drab English exteriors that dominate it. Even the faint-hearted teenage girls who unfailingly scream at horror films at Friday night megaplex showings, much to the disdain of their fellow moviegoers, are unlikely to be scared by The Woman in Black. Then again, how many working filmmakers are still capable of frightening the audience in this one-trick genre that has been around for the better part of a century? I could count the names on one hand.
The reason the opening question is worth considering is because, without scares, the old-fashioned ghost story loses its luster by design. Making the viewer jump is the core objective of a movie like The Woman in Black, and if such an objective is near impossible to achieve, then perhaps the genre needs to be retired (or at least put on hiatus).
That said, the cast and crew of The Woman in Black do their best to make this a dignified production, and ghost story devotees who enjoy the simple mechanics of the genre should be satisfied by the film. In his first post-Potter role, Daniel Radcliffe makes for a serviceable lead—if a bit too young to be playing a widowed father—but the real pleasure is the supporting cast. As a couple whose child may have been killed by the titular ghost, Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer are exceptional; his reserved skepticism about the supernatural being and her questionable sanity both make an impression. The achievements behind the camera are just as noteworthy, from Tim Maurice-Jones’ old school cinematography to Marco Beltrami’s penetrating score.
Thus, even though The Woman in Black can boast neither scares nor narrative depth, it is not a complete bust. In light of the many recent failed attempts to modernize the genre, from Paranormal Activity to The Grudge, director James Watkins’ more traditional take is a welcome change of pace. Furthermore, the filmmaking is consistently competent – and in today’s Hollywood, that’s always worth celebrating, even if the film may not have been worth making in the first place.
* * *
The Woman in Black (2012; UK, Canada, Sweden). Produced by Vic David, Guy East, Ben Holden, Richard Jackson, Roy Lee, Simon Oakes, Brian Oliver, Paul Ritchie, Nigel Sinclair, Todd Thompson, Tyler Thompson, and Sean Wheelan. Directed by James Watkins. Written for the screen by Jane Goldman, based on the novel by Susan Hill. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Roger Allam, Mary Stockley, Shaun Dooley, and Liz White. Distributed by CBS Films. Rated PG-13, with a running time of 95 minutes.