Review: ‘The Woman in Black’ Is a Good, Old-Fashioned Ghost Story

By  · Published on February 3rd, 2012

People love a good scary story and some of the oldest tales on record are stories of ghosts, spirits, and specters cursed to walk the earth haunting the living and wreaking havoc as revenge for some terrible wrong they suffered while alive. Told well, these stories can make spine-tingling and terrifying films. The Woman in Black is a classic ghost story made with style and filled with tense atmosphere and chilling imagery.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Arthur Kipps, a down-on-his-luck young barrister who has been devastated by the death of his wife during the birth of his son. His work has continued to suffer and his law firm gives him what is essentially his last shot, wrapping up the legal affairs of an elderly widow who has recently died in a small town out in the countryside. Kipps takes the job, having no other options, and travels to Crythin to settle the affairs of one Alice Drablow, who just so happened to live in a huge old mansion called Eel Marsh House, located on a small island accessible from only one road and only when the tide is low enough to cross it. Kipps is immediately struck by the severe xenophobia of the townspeople. They are clearly living in fear, but of what Arthur won’t know until he spends a night in Eel Marsh and first encounters the Woman in Black.

The first scene that features the titular ghost is perhaps the most unnerving of all. Three little girls sit in a finished attic having tea time with their dolls, while shots of invisible tea being poured into china cups in slow motion turn to close-ups of the porcelain dolls’ faces. The girls are laughing and playing, yet they and suddenly stop on a dime, as if a bell has rung and it’s dinner time. Only instead of heading downstairs, the girls drop their cups and step on their dolls as they walk trance-like towards the three windows set into the wall of the attic. We see them each unlock their individual window simultaneously as if choreographed. In the reverse shot we see the Woman in Black in the corner of the room like a silent, motionless puppet master. Powerless to stop them, the audience can only watch as the girls step onto the ledge and jump to their inevitable deaths. It’s truly disturbing and sets the perfect tone for the rest of the film.

The Woman in Black is part of the recent resurgence of venerable British studio, Hammer Films. Hammer made their mark in the 60s and 70s by casting Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in films about the classic Universal monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and their ilk. While those were certainly some of the most recognizable of their productions, Hammer also did plenty of general horror films, lots of vampire and werewolf films that weren’t necessarily based on anything except the generally established mythology. The Woman in Black is a film that calls back to the heyday of Hammer Films as a period peace set in a small, sleepy British town besieged by an unspeakable evil. It’s a great way to continue the legacy of one of the finest horror movie studios to ever roll film.

Though the film is a solid work, there is potential carryover from its star’s most well-known franchise that sometimes proves distracting; Radcliffe just looks so young that it seemed odd to picture him as a father and husband. His short stature when compared to other actors in scenes and his baby face give him the youthful appearance of a kid playing dress-up. However, physical attributes aside, and whether or not you buy him as an adult are relatively minor issues in the grand scheme of the film, downplayed by Radcliffe’s performance in the lead role. He plays both curious and scared with equal aplomb and any thoughts of his previous character from his most famous role are banished in the first few scenes. He anchors the film, unraveling the events of the past while enduring most of the jump scares.

The Woman in Black plays like a Gothic fairytale, the type of urban legend you might hear around a fire at summer camp as a kid. The story is well-told, the characters are well-acted, and the chills are well-earned. Radcliffe is surprisingly good, and the film’s supporting cast is bolstered by Ciarin Hinds, who is fantastic as always. While there may be one too many jump scares for the film’s own good, they never feel cheap or like director James Watkins was screaming “boo!” at the audience. The film feels respectful to the Hammer legacy, while also breaking new ground for the classic British studio. Ultimately, The Woman in Black s an entertaining ghost story with a fair bit of old-fashioned flair.

The Upside: Creepy atmosphere and solid chills coupled with a well-told story make for an entertaining film.

The Downside: There seems to be a slight over-reliance on jump scares, even though they were mostly well-done. There are slight believability issues with Radcliffe in his role.

On the Side: The film is based on a 1983 novel by Susan Hill. It was turned into a stage play soon thereafter and saw a previous filmed incarnation as a TV movie in 1989.