There seems to have been a bit of a shift in horror films lately. From the slasher films of the 90’s (Scream, I know what you did last summer), the J-horror of the early 2000’s (The Ring, The Grudge) and the fad for “gorno” (gore-heavy films such as Hostel and Saw), there have always been prevalent themes in the genre. The current trend appears to be taking horror back to its roots though, with an increasing number of traditional ghost stories being successfully converted to the big screen.
This was arguably started with The Others in 2001, although films such as The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone have lately added to the popularity of things that go bump in the night. Interestingly, all three of those films are directed by Spaniards, which goes to show that the big guns of Hollywood rarely have the subtlety required to handle the suspense of a good ghost story. It is into this environment that British director James Watkins has thrust the latest adaptation of The Woman in Black.
The stage version of Susan Hill’s ghost story has been terrifying audiences (and I defy anyone who has seen it to disagree) for 25 years now, so it was only a matter of time until it was adapted for the screen (this time by Wossy’s wife, Jane Goldman). Given the success and quality of the play, it was always going to be a tough act to follow, so how does the film version stand up?
The film is fairly traditional to the book. The young Victorian lawyer Arthur Kipps (played here, in his first ‘adult’ role, by Daniel Radcliffe) is sent up north to Crythin Gifford to document the estate of the deceased widow Alice Drablow. The estate in question is Eel Marsh House, situated on Nine Lives Causeway, and at high tide completely cut off from the mainland. As time goes by Kipps discovers that the house and indeed the town are haunted by the figure of a mysterious and emaciated woman dressed in black. Furthermore, whenever anyone sees her, a child dies.
What follows is an absolute roller-coaster of a jump-fest. Where the play built suspense over a sustained period of time before reaching its nightmarish climax, the film has a shock round every corner. Gone is the long-winded subtlety of the play, instead you are given an unrelenting series of set pieces that closer resembles the Ghost Train at the local fair. Every step is accompanied by atmospheric music, every corner has a you braced for a shock. Even the arrival on the scene of Kipps’ allies makes you fly out of your seat.
While I think it’s fair to say that this film is conceivably the product of the director reading “the big book of horror clichés”, there’s certainly no denying that it is an extremely effective white-knuckle ride. The subject matter is one of the best ghost stories around, while any additions to the plot don’t detract too much from the menace of it. There are jumps galore, which is no mean feat, given that the film doesn’t even attempt to lull you into a sense of false security.
Yes, the acting is a little hammy, and the tension is relentless to the point of it being exhausting to watch. But under its flaws this is a solid horror film and one that is undoubtedly improved by viewing it on the big screen.
by Harry Harland