Thursday, May 24, 2012

Woman in Black

Alternate title: Clingy Bitch
Now that the Harry Potter series is over, it will be interesting to see how the acting careers of the wizarding kids will progress.  The first of the Big Three to star in a movie with widespread theatrical release in America is, unsurprisingly, Daniel Awesomeledge Radcliffe with The Woman in Black.  Aside from wanting to see if Harry Potter can play a muggle, is there any other reason to see this film?  Well, it is one of the releases from the recently resurrected Hammer Films, the same studio that released the Lee/Cushing Dracula films of the 60s and 70s.  In these times of crappy remakes and Saw sequels, it's surprising that a British Gothic horror story can be successful (and this was pretty profitable), but if anyone is going to make an entertaining British horror flick, it would be Hammer.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) has been a widower ever since his wife died giving birth to their son, about three or four years ago.  You'd think he would have the hang of it by now, but no.  Kipps has been moping around literally for years --- even his son always draws Kipps with a frowny face --- and his law firm has had enough.  If he can't pull his own weight, he will be fired.  His last chance is to settle the estate of the late Alice Drablow in Creepytown, UK.  Alice lived in a house that was isolated 3/4 of the day by the tides of the local marsh, and apparently left a ton of official documents lying around there. 
Yep.  That looks like Gothic horror to me
Even if the house wasn't isolated, Kipps would have felt ill at ease; the locals are not very subtle with their wish to have him leave town immediately and without visiting the Drablow house.  Kipps eventually makes his way to the house and it turns out to be gross and unsettling.  How unsettling?  Rooms full of porcelain dolls unsettling.
Porcelain dolls are creepy and they want your soul.  Fact.
After a few hours on the property, Kipps catches a glimpse of a woman wearing black; at first, she is in the graveyard (always nice to have one in your front lawn), but when he goes out to investigate, he notices that she is watching him from inside the house.  When Kipps heads back to town that afternoon --- and, for the record, he didn't seem to do a whole lot of lawyering that day --- he is immediately greeted by a young girl who has drank some lye.  It...didn't agree with her.
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident; it seems that dozens of local kids have committed suicide in this town over the past several years.  But why do the townspeople blame Kipps for the girl's death?  And what does this have to do with the woman in black?

Gothic horror is certainly not for everyone.  Personally, I'm not a big fan of the sub-genre, and The Woman in Black generally adheres to the traits common to the style.  If you sit down to watch this, be prepared for a fairly slow-paced plot, period piece costumes, an emphasis on suspense and atmosphere over gore, and a healthy respect for the paranormal.  As far as the style goes, The Woman in Black is a pretty solid example of how to do it right in the modern era; if they had traded some of the anticlimactic "gotcha" scares for some more disturbing images, I would call this an excellent exercise in Gothic horror.
If that face in the window gives you the heebie jeebies, you might be a Gothic horror fan

Daniel Radcliffe was solid in his first post-Potter starring role.  He doesn't erase your memory of his childhood work (perhaps a different haircut or a beard would have helped), but darn few things will.  Brain Bleach would be a catchy name for one.  The lead in atmospheric horror movies is typically supposed to slowly react to the rising eeriness, hopefully in a manner similar to how the audience would react.  Radcliffe doesn't "wow" you with his skills, but his reactions felt genuine enough.
A hatchet to face possible ghosts?  Stupid, but I'd grab one if I could
CiarĂ¡n Hinds has the biggest supporting role, but it's a pretty huge step down in screen time from co-headliners Radcliffe and Dread to Hinds.  He was adequate, but nothing more; aside from having to look embarrassed a few times, Hinds was just there to act as a personification of rational thought.  British character actor Roger Allam had a small, weenie-ish part, and Liz White made faces at the camera as the dreaded titular woman.

The Woman in Black is only the second film directed by James Watkins, but it was a pretty good effort.  He made a successful film with Daniel Radcliffe looking worried in every scene; it is tough to make a decent horror movie in general, but one that focuses almost exclusively on a single character is a lot harder.  The pacing could feel dreadfully slow in the first half of the film, but Watkins was wise enough to show several deaths to spice things up.  I will say, though, that The Woman in Black has more child suicides in it than any other movie I have seen.
They can't fly
One of the trademarks of the Gothic horror movie is the reserved nature of the characters, and I thought Watkins succeeded in using those subtle degrees of visible emotion to emphasize the slow build of the story.

Despite generally liking most of the ingredients in The Woman in Black, I didn't like it all that much.  Part of that is because I generally dislike Gothic horror --- give me a machete-wielding maniac any day --- but there were just too many small things that bugged me in this movie.  From a directional standpoint, I thought the off-screen wailing of the mothers who lost their kids was a bit melodramatic; I get it, grief isn't pretty, but couldn't they have lines less cliche than "My bay-bees!  Waaaugh!"  From a story standpoint, I don't see why all of this had to happen.  SPOILER ALERT: The townspeople believe that going to the house will inevitably lead to meeting the woman in black, who will inevitably then kill an apparently random child for some reason; okay, fine, I can follow that logic.  So why would anyone in the town agree to drive Kipps there?  And why doesn't he just grab all the papers from the house and take them back to London, so he can go through them in an honest-to-God office, instead of a dusty haunted house? 
Probably not for the helpful notes on the walls
And how does the woman in black operate?  If you see her once, she kills a kid, if you see her twice she kills another kid?  If so, then this movie ended about six child deaths shy of the supposedly inevitable total.  And let's say that Kipps has come to terms with the possibility that he is facing some evil spirits --- why does he keep locking doors, despite frequent evidence that locks mean nothing to ghosts?
A: Because he hasn't figured out windows yet, either
And, perhaps the biggest plot hole of all, if the townspeople are convinced that something is killing their children, why don't they movie away?  Despite all of that, The Woman in Black is a nice little suspense/horror flick.  It's not for all tastes, but it is a nice atmospheric supernatural tale.  I would specifically recommend this to people who fall for "boo" scares, don't like gore, and are creeped out by ghost children and/or child deaths.  If you're looking for excitement in your horror fix, I would look elsewhere.  Still, this is a solid effort from a film with a small budget.

If found it interesting that much of the promo work for The Woman in Black featured old timey photographs with the eyes scratched out, some with the caption "What did they see?" 
Okay, pretty creepy.  However, that isn't fully addressed in the film.  Now, you might argue that the answer to that question is ni the title of the movie; I can buy that argument up to a point.  But what about the kids?  The logic in the film states that the adults are the ones responsible for the seeing-thing.  Interestingly, the kids' eyes are left unscratched in the actual film.  In fact, the scratched photos look more like the faces are being attacked than just the eyes.  Weird, huh?  What an odd choice for the film's advertising team.

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