Hammer Productions was synonymous with horror movies once upon a time. The brought us “The Horror of Dracula,” “Twins of Terror,” “The Devil Rides Out,” and scores of others. They’ve made a comeback in recent years, bringing us “Let Me In,” “Wake Wood,” and “The Resident.” Now, with “The Woman in Black,” they bring us a classic ghost tale sure to please fans of films like “The Others” and “The Orphanage.”
Widower Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is on his last legs: still grieving the death of his wife in childbirth four years ago, he is given his final warning at the law firm where he works and given one last chance to prove himself competent. He’s sent to Eel Marsh, where he’s to go through the papers of Alice Drablow and make sure they have her real last will. He makes arrangements for his young son and the boy’s nanny to join him on the weekend, and sets out.
The taciturn villagers behave suspiciously and are constantly trying to get him to leave, the dead woman’s house is full of strange noises, and you don’t have to have seen the movie’s posters to know something is afoot. Children in the area have been dying, and as Kipps goes through the piles of papers at the house, he gradually uncovers a horrible tragedy in the late widow Drablow’s family.
The entire film looks almost like something drawn by Edward Gorey — the Edwardian clothing, decrepit house, overcast sky, and desolate marshlands create a rich atmosphere, and the film keeps us on edge by mixing classic creepy techniques (moving shapes in the background, sudden noises, and so on) with a long, drawn-out first half. By the time actual supernatural things start happening, we’ve been drawn into the world of Eel Marsh deeply enough that they seem real.
Radcliffe has grown both in age and in skill since he first appeared on screens as Harry Potter. He’s almost unrecognizable here, and handles the role with skill. It’s not easy to look terrified-but-determined without being laughable, but he pulls it off with ease, and makes the young lawyer someone we can root for. The rest of the cast are solid, particularly Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer as a wealthy couple in the area who react to the mysterious death of their son in very different ways and both prove allies to young Kipps.
For folks who like scary movies but don’t find the gore and torture porn so popular right now frightening, “The Woman in Black” is like a cool drink of water after a week in the desert. This is a film for people who love creepiness, atmosphere, and horror movies that work by building a sense of dread gradually rather than simply killing people as gruesomely as possible. This is, however, not a film for those who can’t stand the thought of children in jeopardy.