Event cinema is a term characteristically earmarked for hugely anticipated blockbusters, for horror fans each new film released by Hammer is an event of great anticipation, that this one will finally be the one to announce Hammer’s return to the cinema landscape. The latest flag bearer for these expectations is another adaptation of the novel by Susan Hill turned stage play and TV film – The Woman in Black. There is plenty worthy of anticipation too, with direction from James Watkins (Eden Lake) and a script by Jane Goldman (Kick Ass, The Debt and X-Men First Class).
The only way to discuss the scenes where the woman in black is a part of proceedings is as something a with a difficult relationship with fear. It’s tricks rigidly follow the tropes of the haunted house genre, while it is true that nothing can truly be original in today’s age of media over-saturation more effort should be made in the act of being scary. A large percentage of the jump scares in The Woman in Black follow the same rigid formula, prior to seeing the ghost emerging it will be foreshadowed either in or out of focus in the rear of shot, giving you that preparation for the scare that we are about to see. The occasional bit leaks through which does get a rise, otherwise, seeing a derivative representation of traditional haunted house scares in each new set-piece, it gets tedious quickly.
The second shift which runs for about 20 minutes of the running time, Kipps (Radcliffe) scours the house chasing shadows. Stanley Kubrick’s the shining did a similar thing, but instead of being a central facet of the film, that one tracking shot was achieved with chilling results in a meagre 5 minutes. Those 20-odd minutes in the woman in black have no dialogue (only the occasional bark from his canine companion), just jump scares one after the other. The only ones that land are the ones that explicitly throw a screaming woman at your face, jumping is a perfectly normal reaction to such things. The set design and location help where the scares fail, the atmosphere and chilling aura of the house is a notable strength.
Contrary to public opinion, the value of horror cannot merely be adjudicated on its ability to scare; the background and drama that informs character development hold equal rank. On that front, this is the weakest project penned by Jane Goldman. The bonkers attempts at comedy do work, for instance the way one of the characters treats her dogs, her babies, to laugh is the only reasonable response. The big omission is the lack of character development for Arthur Kipps.
Daniel Radcliffe does the best he can, even if he is a little too young to play his role. Which both a literal comment on his age and an unfortunate result of Harry Potter’s success, it hard for many people to see Radcliffe as an adult. Nevertheless, he does well to distance himself from the Potter as Arthur Kipps, a damaged and detached young man. Even if his role is under-written, Kipps doesn’t undergo any growth and he barely reacts to being terrorized by a ghost, until things get explicit, which funnily enough is the only exchange that is truly fearful. The arc of him being a grieving widower is dropped after the opening scene and picked up in the finale, which is far beyond the point of caring. Bittersweet or not, the film gives no other impression than that of the central narrative [of the titular ghost] consuming all the sub-plots
As the flagship on which to hang the resurgent name of Hammer, the woman in black fails, even if it points towards an upwards turn in favour. As a scary film, the woman in black fails, however there are moments which are fully worth the entrance fee. This is all born from the unwillingness to venture outside the established genre tropes. Despite these achievements and failures, Watkins’ film is the first example in 2012 of wasted potential, it is worth a watch, but only just.