Friday, February 3, 2012

In Theaters: THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012)

(US/UK/Canada - 2012)

Directed by James Watkins.  Written by Jane Goldman.  Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarin Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White, Roger Allam, Mary Stockley.  (PG-13, 95 mins)

Since the resurrection of Hammer, Britain's leading House of Horror, success has been elusive.  LET ME IN, a remake of the Swedish LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, was a fine film that tanked in theaters, while THE RESIDENT and WAKE WOOD got minimal theatrical exposure before being dumped on DVD.   The biggest problem with these films, aside from THE RESIDENT (which featured Hammer icon Christopher Lee) and WAKE WOOD not being very good, is that they seemed to be Hammer in name only.  There was no sense that these films really had anything "Hammer" about them other than attempting to coast on an established label. 

So in that respect, THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a huge step in the right direction.  It's a quaintly charming, chilling old-school gothic horror throwback with no gore, a leisurely pace that lets the tension build, and it proves that the old ways are still the best.  This early 20th century period piece is filled with creaking floors, howling winds, thick fog, marshes, ominous hallways illuminated only by candlelight, chairs rocking themselves, rooms full of creepy dolls, music boxes with unsettling melodies, wind-up toys that look ready to attack, and ghostly faces peering out of windows or materializing in the darkness.  For those in a particular age group, it's the kind of old-fashioned fright flick that normally exists only in our childhood memories of late-night Creature Features on TV.   You could almost picture Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, or Michael Gough in this and there'd be little difference.  I'm happy that a film like this can get released in 2012.  I'm not sure how much today's text-happy asswipes in theaters will like it (one cineaste a few rows back from me kept huffing "This is gay"), so the best you can hope for is that these shitbags don't ruin it for the rest of us.

A post-HARRY POTTER Daniel Radcliffe is a few years too young but acquits himself well as lawyer Arthur Kipps, widowed with a four-year-old son (his wife died in childbirth).  Struggling with his job and, it's hinted, the bottle, Kipps is given one last chance by his boss (Roger Allam), who assigns him to venture to Eel Marsh and close the estate of the late Mrs. Drablow.  No one in town wants Kipps there, and no one will take him down the long causeway leading to the Drablow house, a road that becomes impassable when the evening tide rolls in.  Kipps eventually makes his way to the house and uncovers long-buried secrets in the Drablow family.  And it doesn't take him long to realize that he's not alone.

Featuring solid supporting work from ALBERT NOBBS Oscar nominee Janet McTeer and the great Ciarin Hinds, THE WOMAN IN BLACK is directed by the promising James Watkins, who wrote and directed the disturbing 2008 film EDEN LAKE.  He also wrote the 2002 cult film MY LITTLE EYE, and, unfortunately, 2010's uninspired, superfluous THE DESCENT PART 2.  Obviously a disciple of vintage Hammer fare, Watkins shows a real knack for Victorian-era chills here.  By now, we're trained as viewers to expect a creepy face to materialize in the darkness, but Watkins still makes it work, often playing with your expectations of where they'll pop up, and even though it's familiar, it still scares.  And the production design is very nicely done, so much so that you can almost smell the dank mustiness when Kipps explores the house at Eel Marsh.  Written by Jane Goldman, and based on a novel by Susan Hill, THE WOMAN IN BLACK isn't reinventing the wheel, and doesn't try to.  It's an earnest exercise in mood and atmosphere that will thoroughly engross and terrify if you let it.  I'm cynical enough to think that most audiences will laugh this off the screen, but if it even encourages a handful of younger moviegoers to explore the classics from Hammer's past and develop and nurture an appreciation of those truly timeless films, then it'll be worth it even if it fails at the box office.  I thought LET ME IN was a terrific film, but it wasn't a Hammer film. With THE WOMAN IN BLACK, we finally have a film from the "new" Hammer where the legendary brand seems appropriate.

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