Everybody thinks that Woman In Black, the old-fashioned ghost story featuring Daniel Radcliffe (AKA Harry Potter), is about Edwardian England. But in fact, it's about the 1960s - at least stylistically. Full of silly plot devices, hyperbolically drawn characters, and menacing Victorian geegaws, this movie feels exactly like a Hammer classic from the UK studio's heyday in the 60s. But sadly there are no sexy Christopher Lee scenes, or lesbotic vampires lurking in the shadows. Hammer's first gothic horror film in decades is actually closer to Scooby Doo than Taste the Blood of Dracula.
That said, if you're scared by windup dolls whose eyes follow you, ghosts who literally say "Woooooo!", and old rooms wreathed in spider webs, then you are going to love Woman In Black.
As I said, this is the first Hammer film in quite some time, and it's clear the studio is trying to recapture its glory days when Peter Cushing starred in its campy, blood-soaked updates of Frankenstein and Dracula. Woman In Black is an adaptation of a wildly popular novel, which has already gotten a very respectable TV movie treatment in the UK.
Radcliffe does a fine job in what would probably have been a Cushing role, though he's far too tentative to do any scenery-chewing - which is our loss. He plays a young lawyer named Arthur, whose wife died in childbirth four years before. Still mourning her loss, he's neglected his son and his job, which is why he finds himself sent off on a crappy "last chance or you're fired" gig, going through the papers of a woman who has just died in a chilly coastal town. He's got to get her creepy, dilapidated estate, Eel Marsh House, ready to sell.
For anyone who loves classic horror, there's a lot of fun to be had in the first part of the movie, where the horror clichés are laid on so thick they become something irresistibly charming. Everyone in the town refuses to talk to Arthur. He sees a spooky figure in black. Children die mysteriously. Eel Marsh House is full of cobwebs, chairs that rock on their own, evil-looking crows, and looooooong hallways that terminate with dark, vaginal openings into realms of curtained shadow.
It soon emerges that the "woman in black" that Arthur keeps seeing is a spirit who has haunted the town for decades, always appearing before children die. The one person who doesn't seem completely convinced by the legend is Sam (Ciarán Hinds), the town gentleman who befriends Arthur. He putters around in his newfangled car, telling Arthur that the village is mired in superstition. There's a great scene where Arthur visits Sam and his wife for dinner, and discovers that they, too, have lost their son to the curse. Sam's wife keeps two dogs instead of a child, and we watch her spooning food into their mouths from silver dishes at the table - right before she's seized with the spirit of her dead boy and starts drawing scary shit on the table with her knife.
Oh, and did I mention all the creepy ghost children? And the sad/spooky pictures that Arthur's own son has drawn? Yeah, this movie leaves no ghost trope untouched. Buried beneath the Scooby Doo flourishes, however, are some genuinely chilling glimpses into the minds of parents robbed of their children. We are never allowed to forget about the horrific underside of family bonds.
The longer Arthur stays at Eel Marsh, the more obvious it becomes that yes, the place is seriously haunted. As more children die, Arthur finds the ghost's secret in some hidden papers - and hatches a bizarre plan to help her find peace. But not before he spends a really long time opening doors and ogling furniture in the ghost's giant Victorian mansion — making you wonder whether this isn't a Very Special Episode of This Old House. I mean, I know the guy is a real estate lawyer, but still. There is such a thing as too much house porn.
Also, I must warn you in a non-spoilery way that the ending of the movie may annoy you deeply. You'll see what I mean.
Though there were genuine chills and fun in this flick, I was left wishing that Hammer had returned to movie-making with hat-tips to the science fictional world of its Quatermass series, or the deeply goofy (but still awesome) prehistoric world of One Million Years B.C. (who knew Homo erectus looked like Raquel Welch?). This movie felt like warmed over goodness, rather than something fresh and spicy.
If you're looking for a truly excellent update on the old haunted house movie this weekend, I'd recommend you try The Innkeepers instead.