By Kenna Trent
There is nothing quite like classic horror.
While there is a time and a place for films like Saw and Hostel and they do their trick particularly well, watching someone being torn apart, limb by limb, isn’t the same as the tension you experience from looking too hard at the shadows or wondering what’s looking back at you from an empty window. That is what makes The Woman in Black so special; it is an old school brand of horror that is hard to find in modern cinema. And it will have both fans and critics for this exact reason.
The Woman in Black was originally a novel by Susan Hill published in 1983. The story was quickly picked up for a television movie later in the 80s, before being adapted for the stage where it became one of the longest running shows in the history of London’s West End (and understandably so; it is a terrifically frightening stage production).
The film follows lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), who lives with his four-year-old son and his nanny. He is still visibly shaken by the death of his wife, drowning in late notices from the bank and receiving pressure from his boss to close his next job. Unfortunately for Mr. Kipps, his next job is to settle the estate of a woman surrounded by superstition. Arthur arrives in the remote village of Crythin Gifford to investigate Eel Marsh, an old house separated from land by the eerily named ‘nine lives’ causeway. While at the house, he begins hearing strange noises coming from a locked room and the face of a female spectre dressed in black. Meanwhile, back in town, young children are dying by their own hand almost daily, driving the parents of the town to lock up their children. The only friendly face Arthur finds in town is Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds) whose wife informs him of the curse of the woman in black: every time she is seen, a child dies in a terrible fashion. It is, then, up to Arthur to find out why the woman in black is taking children’s lives and to put an end to it.
This being Daniel Radcliffe’s first outing after years of being Harry Potter, I was naturally a little suspicious that he might not hit the mark exactly right. I was surprised to find he was a perfect fit. His look is totally made for period film and his tragic demeanor was truthful, not a bit put-on.
However, Radcliffe may have been slightly upstaged by the woman in black herself. Her presence is terrifying; as if even though you are just watching something on screen you can almost feel her. The filmmakers weaved her brief appearances beautifully into the film and trust me, the last look of that gaunt face will stay with you for a while.
While the recent previews have made the film out to be some kind of scare machine, don’t go into the theater expecting to see Paranormal Activity because that is not what this movie is all about.
This is going to get a little heavy, but The Woman in Black is about a certain feeling. It does deliver jumping scares, but that is definitely not a gimmick. The fear comes from the way rain, mud, dark skies, or a remote village makes you feel. The children are not being killed, they are committing suicide. How does that sit on your mind? The story is playing to all of the things that we don’t realize frighten us. The things that sit in the back of your mind, the childhood fears of the dark and monsters that live in your closet.
Unfortunately, this is not the outright “horror” of the modern generation. There is little blood, no weaponry, teenagers are not running amuck, and everyone is fully clothed. Many people will find The Woman in Black boring or uninteresting. But while there isn’t obvious bump-in-the-night terrors to keep your attention, there is a good story.
My plea is that you give yourself a chance to fall prey to this kind of scare. Feel the nervous energy of not knowing what the camera’s pan will happen upon or what is lurking just over the main character’s shoulder. Even in the age of found footage and the criminally insane, it is okay to be scared by the sight of a ghostly woman.