The Woman in Black and virtually no reasons to love it; but the one that got me the most is its awareness of history. The fourth feature film released by the newly-resuscitated Hammer Films, and only the second to get an actual push, after the 2010 revisionist vampire picture Let Me In, it is spectacularly aware of what being a Hammer horror picture is all about: period trappings, and overbearingly Gothic production design that is called upon to do nearly all the work of storytelling and atmosphere-building and causing whatever scares are to show up. By the ten-minute mark, when the protagonist had his first run-in with a nervous innkeeper who brusquely refuses to speak about The Secret In These Parts and all but begs the newcomer to go back... to leave this place... I knew that I was in safe, if hugely unimaginative, hands, and strapped in to enjoy the show.
And yet it is not just a throwback (though it is, unquestionably, mostly a throwback: squint enough, and you can see how this is Hammer's attempt to patch the holes in its history. Let us pretend that the company hadn't nearly winked out of existence in the 1970s, but had purred along as a creative force; The Woman in Black is at least partially a guess at how the house style would have naturally evolved in that time. By which I mean, it's a typical Hammer Gothic that is unexpectedly spiced with some of the iconography of J-horror, a solid three years after J-horror riffs stopped having any real currency in the anglophone world. The graft does not hold altogether well; but it is pleasing to see it attempted nonetheless.
The film takes place a bit later than what we might call Hammer Time, if we had a stunningly comprehensive lack of shame: sometime early enough in the 20th Century that automobiles exist but are still a bit of a novelty in the remote English town on the moors where the main action takes place. Here, a young solicitor by the name of Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) arrives on the orders of his superiors, giving him one last chance to start functioning again following the death of his wife in childbirth; he is given the simple task of sorting through the papers of the late Alice Drablow, last inhabitant of Eel Marsh House.
The hamlet near Eel Marsh House - and not too near, for the house itself lies seemingly miles away on an island in in the center of the marsh, connected to the rest of civilisation by a causeway that disappears under the water at high tide - is a damped, dark little place, full of suspicious faces, under the cloud of a rash of children's deaths. Only the wealthy landowner Daily (Ciarán Hinds) offers Arthur any aid whatsoever, though he has his own share of dark secrets, in the form of a wife, (Janet McTeer) who went a whole lot nuts when their son drowned.
Arthur's first visit to Eel Marsh House reveals a home that, to be blunt about it, was never lived in by any human being: it is a phenomenally unhinged exercise in production design, courtesy of Kave Quinn. I am of two minds, here, for the house is so divorced from reality, starting at its angry, staring windows and going down to the littlest prop details, including what I assume was called on tours the "Fucking Terrifying Mechanical Doll Room", that it immediately locks us out of experiencing the movie as anything other than a movie; and yet at the same time, it's pretty amazing in its total absence of subtlety, and there's something delightful about being in the presence of such warped imagination, heightened by director James Watkins and cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones's decision to cake everything in the most overt shadows you could hope to see. This is not the Hammer of yore, which used atmosphere via production design heavily, but usually with some degree of sophistication and finesse This is atmosphere created with the abandon of a teenage boy having sex for the first time: hugely enthusiastic and clumsy, and there's little concern devoted to what kind of mess is made in the process.
Arthur's first day is plagued by the suspicion that someone else is around: and a couple of times he thinks he spots a pale-skinned woman (Liz White) in mourning clothes with unnaturally corroded-looking skin. This proves to be only the first of many terrible things he'll encounter over the next few days, eventually learning that he's right in the center of a local legend about the Woman in Black, who rises when she is spotted at Eel Marsh House, and will not be quieted until she has taken a child's life.
Like most ghost stories, The Woman in Black loses most of its go once the explanations start to roll in, but in this case, at least, the film does a smart job of structuring itself so it doesn't entirely matter: the whole point of the movie seems to be to get us to and then lead us back out of its mammoth central section, Arthur's second day and only night at Eel Marsh House, a protracted sequence - without having timed it, I'd never believe it was less than 20 minutes and very possibly 30 - in which there is essentially not a word of dialogue, and no real plot, just scene after scene of the paranormal activities which plague the solicitor and the dog he's been lent for the evening. This is patently nuance-free stuff, all creepy-crawlies and rattly sound design and horrifying ghost faces popping up in the corner of frames; but it's pretty great anyway, or maybe even because of it; it's like a short film on the theme "old-fashioned horror movies are fantastic", and it is far and away the best reason for The Woman in Black to exist.
Indeed, it is possibly the only reason for The Woman in Black to exist, for otherwise, this is altogether shallow: Jane Goldman's screenplay, adapted from Susan Hill's 1983 novel, keeps wanting to have more resonance than it ever achieves, largely because the attempts at establishing a narrative for Arthur's grieving and his ambivalence at being a single father never go anywhere interesting. How much of this has to do with Radcliffe's occasionally stiff performance - how much of it has to do, for that matter, with Radcliffe's impossible-to-overcome link to a callow adolescent wizard, making it hard to buy him as a widower and parent - and how much because the balance between character drama and atmospheric horror movie is mismanaged by writer and director, it's hard to say; certainly, no Hammer film was ever called a masterpiece first and above all because the protagonist was such a compelling dramatic figure.*
The narrative itself isn't terribly compelling either: it's pretty much just a ghost story, and it's not tremendously hard to figure out the explanation before it shows up, nor to guess the twist ending, which as it plays here feels less like a natural extension of what's gone before and more a sop to the modern tendency for every horror story to have a shocker right before the credits. On the other hand, the mere fact of an old-fashioned ghost story is pretty satisfying, and even if this is not the best of the recent group of such films, it's also not the worst. Radcliffe might not handle the dramatic depths of his part, but he's satisfying as the guileless urbanite who stumbles into a world he and the audience don't understand until late in the game.
Regardless, horror is a genre uniquely well-inoculated against weak stories: if the atmosphere is sufficiently glowering and overcast, that gets you most of the way. Whatever else is true, The Woman in Black is damned atmospheric, excessively so, but better excessive atmosphere than the opposite. It's not a return to peak form for Hammer Gothics, but it's not any worse than the median, and that means a film worth gaping at even if it's sometimes not worth anything else.