It seems only fitting that the recent resurgence of Hammer Horror should tackle a production of The Woman in Black. Synonymous with gothic horrors of the 1960’s, Hammer is a very British institution yet, despite its re-opening in 2008, it’s main projects to date have been American productions: The Resident and Let Me In. However, whilst The Woman in Black may not retain the delirious melodrama of the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing era, it is considered one of the tantamount ghost stories of recent years. Hammer acquiring the rights to make it seems like a foregone conclusion.
Based on the 1983 novel by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black tells the story of Arthur Kipps (played by a post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe), a man in his late fifties, recounting an incident from his youth that has scarred him for life. As a young man he was sent to deal with the estate of the recently deceased Mrs Drablow, however, during his stay on the estate, he experiences all manner of ghostly goings-on from a menacing figure: the woman in black of the title.
Written very much in a classical style, Susan Hill’s novel deliberately imitates the works of other famous horror writers, in particular the works of M.R. James, and delivers a classic chiller in the same vein as The Haunting of Hill House and The Fall of the House of Usher. 1989 saw the release of the stage adaptation, which still runs in The Fortune Theatre in London to this day to continued audience and critical acclaim.
The big question about the film, however, is this: how can it possibly live up to and maintain the story’s already stellar reputation? Signs are, at least, somewhat hopeful. Whilst director James Watkins’ previous feature, Eden Lake, was a much more ferocious movie, he demonstrated a knack for unbearable scenes of tension. Whether this will translate to The Woman in Black is yet to be seen but it’s an interesting move for a director who has, so far, made a living on visceral experiences rather than gothic chillers.
What is disconcerting, however, are the apparent liberties that have been taken with the story. Due to her work with Matthew Vaughan (Stardust, Kick-Ass & X-Men: First Class), screenwriter Jane Goldman has quickly become hot property in Hollywood, yet the official plot synopsis details some interesting tweaks to the narrative, namely the apparent race against time to save Kipps’ son in the film’s final act. Both book and play spend the latter half of the story stuck in the haunted estate and builds the dread gradually with escalating moments of horror, the climax of which is fantastically downbeat. We must wait till February to see if this is the case with the film.
Ghost stories are a fickle beast that either excel or flounder, depending on their atmosphere. Fortunately, The Woman in Black has this in spades. Let’s hope this translates to the big screen.