From a London choking in smoke and fumes to a chilly marshland blanketed in fog, early 20th century England seems tailor-made for an atmospheric horror film, and “The Woman in Black” takes full advantage of all that built-in creepiness. Produced under the recently revived Hammer Films label, it stands squarely and spookily alongside that studio’s horror classics of the 1960s, back when Christopher Lee was playing vampires and Peter Cushing was chasing them.
This time around, we’ve got Daniel Radcliffe, out to show that he’s capable of having a post-Hogwarts career, and his performance here goes a long way toward proving it. We’ve watched Radcliffe grow up on screen, but as grieving widower Arthur Kipps, the actor has banished all signs of youth and vitality from his eyes. Kipps is so gloomy a figure that even his young son Joseph (Misha Handley) draws daddy as a stick figure with a frowning face.
Dispatched by his law firm to tidy up the affairs of a recently deceased client, Kipps finds himself headed to the inhospitable-sounding Eel Marsh Manor. Once he arrives at his dank destination, the locals seem eager to put him back on the next train to London, but Kipps is received warmly by Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), who thinks the villagers are consumed with “superstitious rubbish.”
Still, you can’t blame them; lots of local children, Sam’s among them, have died in mysterious ways. And no one wants to go out to the manor for fear of seeing the titular lady who still haunts the premises.
Haunted house movies basically live and die by their atmospherics and by the consequences to those poor mortals who come too close to the premises, and “The Woman in Black” delivers on both counts. The film opens with three little girls who suddenly drop their dolls and jump out of the attic windows, so we know from the get-go that this is a movie that’s willing to do awful things to its living characters, and to children, no less.
Deserving a lion’s share of credit for the film’s creepy milieu are art director Paul Ghirardani, production designer Kave Quinn and set decorator Niamh Coulter, who cram every inch of the manor full of eerie old wind-up toys, overstuffed couches, moldering cabinets, drippy candles and cobwebs as far as the eye can see. (Those cobwebs do seem to magically disappear once Kipps has been in the house a day or two.)
Granted, like those Hammer films of yore, “The Woman in Black” has some long stretches that feel like padding. Not content to let Kipps have one or two sightings of the local poltergeists, there’s an extended sequence where he encounters them over and over again. And again.
It’s also too bad that director James Watkins (“Eden Lake”) felt it necessary to scare his audience with that tired old trope of PG-13 horror movies, the sudden JOLT of noise or music on the soundtrack. It’s a lazy device, and “The Woman in Black” spins such a dank and shadowy spell on the audience that such measures aren’t really necessary.
Still, the film gets a lot more right than wrong, from the memorable performances by Radcliffe, Hinds and Janet McTeer (as Hinds’ wife, who’s either delusional or actually channeling the spirit of their dead son) to Jane Goldman’s screenplay (based on the novel by Susan Hill), which weaves a spell of menace all the way to the climax. It’s a good old-fashioned ghost story, dressed up in morbidly Edwardian drag.