- Rated PG-13
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All photos © CBS Films
Reviewed by David Medsker
hat every director of a horror film or supernatural thriller needs to remember is that you don’t need to tell the audience when to be scared, because when the moment comes, they’ll know what to do. Horror takes discipline, not a noisy score. The scariest moments in film history are most often the quietest ones. (See: the clown in “Poltergeist.”) This is a mistake that “The Woman in Black” makes again and again, setting up the big ‘boo’ with something small, and then following it with the big red herring crash. The story is actually a compelling one, but the execution is patronizing. Here’s a rule of thumb: if someone has to be at least 13 in order to see your movie, then there is no need to spoon feed them.
Still mourning the loss of his wife after she died giving birth to his now-four-year-old son Joseph (Misha Handley), attorney Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is sent to a small town on England’s east coast to settle the estate of reclusive widow Alice Drablow. The townsfolk are none too pleased to see Arthur meddling with Alice’s affairs or the house, which is surrounded by marsh lands with daily tides that cut the house off from the mainland. As Arthur digs through the scattered paperwork in Ye Olde Eel Marsh House, he hears noises upstairs. When he investigates the source of the sound and then looks out the window, he sees a woman dressed in black staring back at him. Soon after, one of the children in the village dies in gruesome fashion, and Arthur is blamed for bringing a vengeful spirit back to life. Determined to find out what is really going on, Arthur discovers that the woman in black is Alice’s sister, and she carries one hell of a grudge.
Screenwriter Jane Goldman added several new wrinkles to the 1983 novel on which the movie is based, with mixed results. In the book and play, the woman’s presence would trigger a series of events that would lead to a fatal accident, like a tamer version of “Final Destination.” Here, she’s like the spectral equivalent of “The Happening” which, despite a disturbing opening scene, is not nearly as scary. To Goldman’s credit, she gave the relationship between Alice and her sister some additional conflict, which was a smart move, and in the end the main reason the story doesn’t work better is not because of the script but because of the direction, which is all big noises and ‘boo’ moments, served up with a score strategically designed to scare you for no reason. They even have a crow fly in out of nowhere for one of the fake scares, presumably because they couldn’t rationalize using a cat.
Radcliffe handles the role admirably (though he seems too young to have a four-year-old), and gives the material as much respect as he can muster. Having Ciaran Hinds around to play the helpful local businessman Mr. Daily surely helped; the two run circles around the rest of the cast – which consists of little more than pitchfork-wielding angry townsfolk – with the exception of Janet McTeer, who as Mr. Daily’s mentally unstable wife is the spookiest thing in this movie.
You can see why “The Woman in Black” attracted so much talent. The book and the play were big hits in the author’s native England, and you can see all of the elements of a great play on the screen. The problem is that those elements are drowned in a cacophonous score and fake scares, the two most tired clichés in horror. If director James Watkins, making his American feature film directorial debut, had kept things quiet and let the visuals speak for themselves, it would have made for a completely different, and far scarier, viewing experience.