The Woman in Black: A Classic Ghost Story

February 6, 2012

The Woman in Black
Directed by James Watkins

In the new horror/thriller The Woman in Black, Arthur Kipps, a lawyer whose grief over his dead wife has put his career in jeopardy, is sent to a remote English village to sort out the affairs of a recently deceased woman. Upon his arrival, he learns that everyone in the town is keeping a deadly secret: the woman's house is haunted by a ghost-the titular woman in black.

The Woman in Black shamelessly dips deep into the well of horror clichés, ladling on more fear and dread with each scene. The list is fairly comprehensive: creaking doors; spooky little girls in finery; candlelit faces; rocking chairs with unseen occupants; close-ups of creepy dolls; wall-scrawled scary message; the local, spooked oddball who turns out to be not so crazy; scary faces and handprints on windows; dark shadows moving in the background behind an unsuspecting hero; ghostly figures seen, then unseen a second later; and so on. 

While many of these are used to good effect, the film isn't above cheap scares: there's a few animals that jump or flutter out of the darkness-accompanied, of course, by a pounding, jumping score. (My rule of thumb is to give horror directors three such cheap-shock red herring freebies before I complain.)

The film's gothic setting and scenery serve the story nicely. The woman's house (situated somewhat strangely on a tiny island beyond a cold gray marsh) is ivy-covered and decrepit; the town is small, tight-knit, and superstitious. The era is relevant as well: Spiritualism and belief in ghosts was flourishing in England at the time, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) publicly endorsing mediums and séances.

I appreciated the film's slow, deliberate pacing-this is a thriller horror film in the tradition of the classic Hammer Films, not today's quick-cut slasher flicks-though the many scenes of Kipps exploring the house and grounds gets repetitive. For an apprentice lawyer who desperately needs to prove himself to his employers, he spend an awful lot of time doing anything but what he's being paid to do. Instead of sorting through the dead woman's effects in search of relevant legal paperwork, he's wandering the house following weird noises and phantoms.

Daniel Radcliffe as Kipps looks a bit like a soulful Edgar Allan Poe in his black frock coat and pocket watch. The film is of course Radcliffe's first non-Harry Potter film, and he seems to be doing his best to play against type. He's a quite good actor in his own right, and well on his way to shedding Potter for good.

The script was adapted from a 1983 novel by Susan Hill, though the basic plot is ancient. From a folkloric point of view, the story is an interesting blend of ghost traditions from around the world, including the Irish legends of the banshee, a woman whose terrifying wail is a portent of death and doom. There's also elements of La Llorona, the Hispanic Weeping Woman who drowned her children and returned as a vengeful ghost. He's seen and heard calling and weeping for her babies, and is said to abduct and kill children.

Though The Woman in Black is good overall it falters a bit toward the end, as if the screenwriter wasn't sure how exactly to wrap it up into a satisfying conclusion. It doesn't give too much away to say that Kipps tries to figure out what the ghost wants so that her spirit can rest. This is of course classic ghostlore, and a scenario I have seen enacted during real-life ghost hunts by psychics and alleged ghost hunters. Given the rich source material The Woman in Black could have been better, but it's a respectable ghost story.