The Woman in Black review
Movies have a way of projecting themselves onto their viewers. I can't tell you how many times I've walked out of a good action film with a purpose to my step, hopped into my car with cool confidence, and drove the little wreck just a bit faster and more cleanly than usual. Sometimes the effect is more subtle than that, and with the horror film, The Woman in Black, it was the simple sound of crinkling paper that got me thinking.
Set in Britain, in the early 1900s, this film takes place before heavy industrialization, and well before our time of cars, cellphones, the internet, and video games. There's a train here, a car there, but for the most part, The Woman in Black is set in an alarmingly quiet village. It's a place where the slightest shuffling of paper, creaking of a floor, or wet squish of muddy boots feels profound.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a lawyer sent to square away a secluded estate before it's sold. The nearby townsfolk don't take lightly to his arrival, shuffling into their homes and doing their best to send him on his way.
With a wife lost in childbirth, Arthur is introduced as a full-time grieving widower and part-time lawyer. With a son old enough to walk and talk, it's obvious that the loss has affected him for years now. His boss can only let it go on so long, and gives Arthur this one last job to prove himself.
Arthur must do this job, regardless of the wishes of the people in town. At last he finds his way to Eel Marsh, an estate surrounded by fog and a rising tide that cuts it off from the world. A cross sinks into the marsh outside the estate and you have to wonder if that's not enough warning to turn back.
Once inside, Arthur sets off collecting paperwork and exploring the house. Almost immediately, things start getting creepy. The Woman in Black is a very traditional horror film, complete with bumps in the night amongst desperate silence. You get the impression that modern times are too noisy for these kinds of scares.
If only director James Watkins could have stayed true to that vision of somber, deliberate, unsettling psychological horror. It may be too much to ask of a traditional ghost story, but why must every modern horror movie insist on cheap, ridiculously loud jump scares? Yes, I was genuinely startled on several occasions, but that initial jump was always followed by the thought: “Really?”
Why is every attempt to scare the audience, no matter how impractical, always accompanied by a sharp, bloodcurdling scream? At one point Arthur looks into a peephole and a sad little girl jumps into view. The girl is completely silent, and the startling violin sting that creates the scare is completely unrelated to what's actually happening.
Those jump scares are The Woman in Black's punchline to every bit of moody, dreadful build-up that precedes them. It cheapens the experience and undoes just about everything the film has going for it.
What you're left with is a by-the-numbers ghost story. There isn't even much of a mystery; Arthur spends a bunch of time simply finding his way to the house and learning about the town. When the questions of what happened are finally introduced in the middle of the film, they're just as quickly answered through some convenient monologue. This spares the audience from a lame twist, but ultimately leaves the plot with little to sink your teeth into.
Once the credits for The Woman in Black played out, I walked out of a silent theater, and drove a quiet Sunday drive back home. Thoughts of what to write for this review running through my head, I reached for some paper, and the crinkling of the sheets reminded me of the profound silence of Eel Marsh Estate. If only we could go back there without all the stupid shrieking screams and violin stings.