"Don't go chasing shadows..."
Widower Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is given one last assignment to prove his worth as an employee at a London based law firm. He is sent to an isolated English village to sort through the documents of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow, a hermit.
Kipps arrival is greeted with hostility by everyone in town, save for the kindly Mr. Daily (Ciaran Hinds) and Mrs. Fisher (Mary Stockley), the Innkeeper's wife. But that hostility does not deter Kipps from performing his duty. He goes out onto the marsh and enters the empty and decayed Drablow house.
It is there that Arthur Kipps learns the terrifying reason for the villagers hostility...
The joy was that, after growing up watching countless Hammer Studios productions on television (VHF and UHF broadcasts, as well as cable), and on VHS, laser disc, and DVD, The Woman in Black would mark the very first time that I would actually see a Hammer Studios production on the Big Screen. (Since I thought that Let The Right One In was perfect in its original version, I passed on seeing Hammer's English language remake of the film, Let Me In, and the studio's psychological thriller The Resident did not play theatrically near me.) For an almost life long "Hammerhead", this moment was a big deal.
My apprehension, of course, was a fear that the film would not be good.
That apprehension was dashed by the film's opening scene. A trio of girls are having a tea party with their dolls. The party comes to a nightmarish end when the girl's sense a presence in the room and, en masse, they get up off the floor, walk over to the windows, and jump to their deaths. "My babies!" a woman screams in anguish. The camera pulls back and, in the corner of the frame, the veiled figure of the woman in black is revealed.
The sequence is both powerful and frightening, but not in an over the top way. There is no thundering music as the girl's jump to their deaths, nor is a cattle prod stinger sound effect (to "goose the scare") used when the camera pulls back to reveal that it was the woman in black the girls had seen/sensed. Director James Watkins trusts that the event itself is harrowing enough, that there is no need for heavy handed theatrics.
Watkins was (and is) not only correct in that particular judgment call, but it is one he continued to make it throughout the entire film. The film's biggest scares are rooted in an almost stifling atmosphere of gothic dread and are kept in the shadows. The ghost(s) do not become overtly theatrical until the third act, when it is necessary to the story for them to do so.
As the film came to an end, I realized that I had seen something a tad unique in this era of ADHD movies. I had seen a methodically paced and wonderfully told story. One that was not only filled with intelligent and well mounted scares, but that also had (gasp) a cast of well developed and interesting (and almost entirely sympathetic) characters. I can only hope that today's "thrill-a-second" movie going audience can appreciate the movie.
The Woman in Black is almost a throwback to Hammer Studios gothic golden era. I say almost because, truth be told, if the film was made during that era, there would have been some heaving bosoms on display and a splash or two grand guignol to spice up the first and second reels a bit more. But even without the heaving bosoms and splashes of grand guignol, it was very easy to imagine the exact same film, albeit with Peter Cushing as Kipps, Christopher Lee as Mr. Daily, and someone like Barbara Shelley in the role of either Mrs. Fisher or Mrs. Daily. Hammerhead's everywhere should rejoice and be happy. The studio is finally back, with a vengeance.
Three and a half stars out of four.