Having coproduced "Let Me In" (the 2010 English-language remake of Sweden's "Let the Right One In"), Hammer Films – the premier producer of British genre films in the 1960s and '70s – continues its slow crawl out of the grave with "The Woman in Black," based on Susan Hill's 1982 ghost novel.
The main commercial selling point here is the presence of Daniel Radcliffe in his first major screen role after a decade portraying a certain young wizard in a series of eight rather successful films. (Can we make it through this review without explicitly mentioning Harry P ... Oops. I guess not.) In a bizarre, if trivial coincidence, the story was previously adapted for TV in 1989, with Radcliffe's role filled by Adrian Rawlins, who portrayed his father in the "Harry Potter" films.
"The Woman in Black," an adaptation of a book and London's second-longest-running West End play by the same name, is a haunted house tale, with all the requisite shock cuts and spooky off-screen noises. But, for some of us, the scariest moment occurs within the first five minutes, when a 4-year-old (Misha Handley) addresses Radcliffe as "Daddy." I know that time flies, but this feels like Mach 2 and then some.
The film is set around the turn of the century – not the recent one but the Victorian/Edwardian one. Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps – a winking reference to the H.G. Wells hero, maybe? – a young lawyer whose once-promising career has been sinking ever since his beloved wife died in childbirth. He has never recovered from his grief: The first thing we learn is that he's suicidal and only keeps going on for the sake of the above-mentioned 4-year-old.
His long-dissatisfied employer gives him a final chance to save his job: He must go from London to the remote Yorkshire village of Crythin Gifford and straighten out the papers of an old woman who died without friends or heirs. On the train, he strikes up an acquaintance with the affable, well-to-do Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds). Sam will be the last affable face – spectral or live – he sees for the rest of the movie.
The rest of the villagers are downright hostile and try to prevent him from going to the ominous-looking Eel Marsh House, which is cut off from the mainland during high tide. As everyone other than Arthur and Sam knows, Eel Marsh House is haunted by a vengeful spirit, a woman in – you guessed it – black. The mere fact of Arthur's presence seems to provoke her into murdering people in the village. (The mechanism here is central to the story and is never quite clear. It's as though Arthur is somehow bringing her back with him from the house – or something.)
Director James Watkins ("Eden Lake") uses all the traditional tricks – creaking sounds, doors mysteriously locked and unlocked, lights snuffed out, and the rest. To those, he adds devices more identified with the last decade or two of Japanese and Korean horror films and their American remakes ("The Ring," "Dark Water," "The Grudge"): glowering figures just glimpsed in the background when Arthur is looking the other way, indistinct black forms rising from nowhere, children's crayon art gone bad. Mostly it's effective, but he overuses the "sudden loud noise" shock tactic, and he crams in so much that the plot becomes less and less clear as we go along.
Radcliffe's fidgety performance is convincing, and he does come across as an adult, though a very young one. He wears stubble throughout. Perhaps Arthur doesn't trust himself with a razor so close to his jugular or maybe this was a fashion of the period. But likeliest it's to make Radcliffe look older.
The project was doubtless shaped to attract its star's adolescent and preadolescent female fan base. Many of them at my screening not only screamed numerous times right on cue but almost as many times without a cue. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for thematic material and violence/disturbing images.)