A truly horrific horror film is something of a rarity. The Saw films are gruesome, the Paranormal Activity movies are jumpy and Sam Raimi’s output is schlocky fun, but if you know what to expect from them – or their lower budget clones – it’s easy to brace yourself, and diffuse their effect.
More to the point, they tend to rely on the same techniques – lull the audience into a false sense of security, then use loud noises, quick cuts, and all too often revolting visuals to shock the audience into submission. The Woman In Black works in a completely different, and much more effective, fashion by removing that sense of security.
From the very first moments, with a creepy opening sequence involving the demise of a group of young girls, the film uses our base fears and human nature to bathe the audience in an uncomfortable tension that only ends when the credits roll. This tension, which the film shares with the phenomenally successful stage adaptation, allows it to have an effect on a viewer entirely unlike any modern horror film. In the truest sense of the word, it horrifies.
Of course, constant tension and discomfort are not sufficient to create a satisfying scary movie. If it were, We Need to Talk About Kevin would be a favourite with the FrightFest crowd. A horror movie needs the catharsis of a good scare to punctuate the unease, and Woman In Black has that in spades. Sometimes they come in the form of a quick, unexpected jump – a cheap little shock, but more often than not they’re much more subtle, and infinitely more effective: a door suddenly open, a piece of furniture out of place or a glimpse of a figure in a dusty photograph. In most films these would only work with a long build up, combining clever camera work and a crescendo in the soundtrack. Here they’re almost thrown away, and they’re all the more successful for it.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have far less subtle moments; at some points director, James Watkins, confronts the audience with shots that wouldn’t be out of place in the most artless of low budget horror flicks, but the tense, unyielding atmosphere means that, far from being ridiculous and laughable, as they would be elsewhere, they are the most successful moments, causing audible shrieks from all corners of the screening I attended.
While Jane Goldman’s screenplay and Watkins’ direction are key factors in this, the film would stand no chance at all if it weren’t for the solid, effective performance of lead actor Daniel Radcliffe. Wandering around old buildings, looking startled is clearly familiar territory, but at no stage does this feel like ‘Harry Potter and the Scary Ghost Woman’, and within moments of being introduced to Arthur Kipps, all traces of his former life as a boy wizard have vanished.
There are a few things that don’t quite work. Some of the dialogue is a little clumsy, particularly an early exchange between Radcliffe’s Kipps, and Roger Allam as his boss. During this brief sequence, Allam sets up a key story point while berating Radcliffe’s character, telling him ‘This is your final warning’. It’s an anachronistic phrase, and jars badly in the context of the conversation. That said, it’s also a fairly minor quibble. Far less minor are the changes made to the original story.
This complaint isn’t based on some idea of sticking slavishly to the text, simply that they don’t work very well. An almost out of the blue moment in the third act sees Radcliffe trying to appease a vengeful spirit, while the final moments of the movie are much more saccharine than in the original story. It’s easy to understand why Goldman and Watkins chose to make these changes, for better or worse, they give the story a much more cinematic structure, but they also feel clunky when compare to the rest of the film.
Fortunately these problems come about so late in the story they’re almost irrelevant. To be honest, after the mystery and tension built over the first hour, Radcliffe could spend the remainder of the film dressed as a Smurf and it would still be both satisfying and scary. Quite simply The Woman In Black is the most effective horror film I’ve seen. Exquisitely terrifying, it is simultaneously near impossible to watch, and too compelling to turn away from. If you’re a fan of scary movies, this is a must watch – just be sure to bring a change of underwear and someone to hold your hand when you do.
with a bonus point for creeping me out while I was writing this review.