The Woman in Black is a proper, scary, thoroughly old-fashioned ghost story. I saw it twice at Campbeltown Picture House, and it was just as much of an edge-of-the-seat, jump-out-of-your-skin experience the second time around. It’s a shocker, right from the opening scene of 3 little girls having a doll’s tea party to the ambiguous, if physically explicit, ending.
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young lawyer, still mourning his wife’s death in childbirth 4 years previously. He reluctantly leaves his son, Joseph, in London to go through the legal papers of a deceased widow in a remote village in the North East of England, planning for Joseph and his nurse to join him there in 3 days time. What he discovers at Eel Marsh House, after evading the efforts of the villagers to send him back to London on the next train, brings disaster on the village and possibly himself.
The film is suffused with a dark, brooding atmosphere that works perfectly with the October landscape, low, stone built houses, and decaying mansion at the end of a tidal causeway. The only modern thing is Mr Bentley’s Rolls Royce motor car. Bentley (Roger Allam) is Arthur’s only ally, a determined skeptic who dismisses the villagers’ superstitions despite the death of his own son in mysterious circumstances.
This is a Hammer film, and it shows in the skill with which they ratchet up the horror. If the journey to Eel Marsh House is full of tension and unanswered questions, once Arthur enters, it goes into overdrive. The sound effects are brilliant – simple things like knocks and the rattling of door handles that explode like bombs and make you jump. Visually, Eel Marsh House is a grand symphony of decay, a time capsule of lost hopes and despair. The Victorian clockwork toys are creepiest, dead yet waiting to spring back into life. Arthur’s candle flame, reflected in the glass eyes, follows him across the room.
The manifestations of the Woman in Black are also brilliant. She has a malignant power, the darkness surrounding her throbbing with condensed hate, even if weren’t for the occasional eldritch screech. A superb creation, best I’ve seen in any horror film ever. It should also be pointed out that there’s a Woman in White – Arthur’s wife – seen in her wedding dress. This makes for an interesting polarity, yet both are women who have lost a child. And it’s the source of ambiguity in the ending.
Daniel Radcliffe plays the role of Arthur pitch perfectly. In this film he tramples the corpse of Harry Potter beneath his feet. Roger Allam, as Mr Bentley, is another thoroughly convincing character, the slab of his face a bulwark of scepticism against the secret fears that can’t help but show in his eyes. The only character not properly fleshed out is Stella, Arthur’s wife. Sophie Stuckey is only allowed to be saintly and ethereal. Well, she is a ghost, but so is the splendid Woman in Black (Janet McTeer), who crackles with dark energy.