‘The most chilling ghost story of our time’ boasts the ad campaign for The Woman in Black and there are many of those who have either read the book or seen the stage play that will likely agree. The story, having developed a near mythical level of infamy over the years, is now so synonymous with flat-out terror that the arrival of a film adaptation has been met with both delight and trepidation. Can it possibly live up to expectations? The answer? Yes and no.
In the spirit of author M.R. James, The Woman in Black is a story concerning a vengeful spirit. Our protagonist, solicitor Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), is sent away to deal with the estate of one Mrs. Ann Drablow, who had recently passed away, leaving behind Eel Marsh House, which has fallen into disrepair. Upon arriving at the local village, Arthur finds the locals inexplicably unwelcoming and hostile. It soon becomes apparent that things at Eel Marsh House aren’t what they seem and a mysterious woman dressed all in black is at the centre of it.
Directed by James Watkins, it is welcoming to see the filmmaker tackle a different kind of horror from the gruelling ordeal that was his previous feature, Eden Lake. Yet ghost stories, even one as prolific as this, are temperamental and will either rise or fall depending on their ability to instil genuine dread in its audience. For about two thirds of its run-time, The Woman in Black works like gangbusters. Whilst there are obvious changes (Kipps is a grieving widower here as opposed to the chipper family man he is in the book), for the most part acts one and two function as a condensed but faithful interpretation of the source material. The jump scares are expertly timed whilst the overall ominous tone, especially during the twenty minute segment where Kipps finds himself stuck in the house due to the high tide, succeeds in making your skin crawl. It understands that what isn’t seen is far more frightening than what is seen, utilising the edge of the frame to great effect, causing you to question whether or not you saw something foreboding.
However, the film falters during its final act. Comprised of mostly new material, the tone shifts from gothic chiller to a generic race-against-time motif that almost scuppers any credibility the film has accrued. Whilst not a total failure, this sideways shift is unnecessary, as the climax of both the book and the stage play feature a stranded Arthur Kipps besieged by increasingly frightening paranormal events that build from being slight to legitimately terrifying. In choosing to show this particular sequence half way through, the filmmakers have played their hand too soon, as it ultimately showcases what are to be the film’s most memorable moments long before the end. The new material, whilst competent, just isn’t as good.
The Woman in Black is a flawed but ultimately effective adaptation that remembers why ghost stories are inherently scary. It does nothing that can be considered original and a third act blip is unfortunate yet when it works it arguably delivers some of the best chills for years. A woman dressed all in black with a gaunt white face will always be scary.
Best performance: Daniel Radcliffe. The introductory scene where he stares vacantly in his bedroom mirror sheds any baggage of the boy wizard and gives us Radcliffe: The Actor.