Movie Review of The Woman In Black: A Classic, If Flawed, Gothic Ghost Story

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) at the window of Eel Marsh House, a haunted mansion, unaware that he is accompanied by The Woman In Black

After watching the director’s cut of The Exorcist the other day, I decided to set the scare-factor bar even higher for myself, since it’s hard to get really scared these days, what with unreal CGI effects and poorly-written scripts.

The quiet terror of a good ghost story exists mostly in our heads, since we scare ourselves when we imagine the darkened room, the cold spot, the hand shaking while it tries to hold the guttering candlestick and peer behind the curtain at…. what?

No amount of CGI will ever substitute for that prickly feeling up the back of your spine when you’re immersed in the step-by-step dread and tension of the best ghost story.

In the search for this kind of frightening ghost story brought to the screen, I’d been looking for The Woman in Black on DVD for some time now. Before I tell you why you should see this (if you like creepy, scary movies), you should know that the movie has received some negative reviews by those who have panned it, rejecting it as slow-moving, relying too heavily on “cheap” effects that leave you disappointed.

I watch all types of scary movies, from Poltergeist to Paranormal Activity, and in my opinion, most modern scary stories suffer from the addition of the kinds of special effects that cannot reach the part of us that is capable of being deeply frightened. Grossed-out, creeped-out, overwhelmed, yes; but to experience true fear, all you have to do is believe there’s something there in the dark with you, something you can’t see.

You feel its silent, threatening presence, but when the lights are turned on, you feel somewhat sheepish—there’s nothing there. Yet you were, in that one moment of absolute dread, aware that you were not alone. How do you explain that? Most scary movies these days don’t even try, and that’s why they’re a disappointment to me, but probably not to those who weren’t raised with classic ghost tales of horror and suspense.

I don’t entirely disagree with negative reviews of The Woman In Black, but would add the fact that this is not your run-of-the-mill ghost story, and it’s also possible that it has been almost entirely misunderstood by some who perhaps don’t have an interest in classical English Romantic-neo-gothic ghost fiction, the kind that haunts you long after you’ve read it, or watched it, for that matter.

This piece of advertising from “The Woman In Black” brings to mind Memento Mori gone awry. Images that rely on the inherent, almost-dead stillness of Victorian-era photography seem inordinately creepy in our hectic times.

My impression is that those who don’t read classical ghost stories will not appreciate what  The Woman In Black accomplishes, with its Victorian-era sensibilties and its layering of detail-upon-psychically-oppressive detail. 

Much like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, also originally a book made into a movie, or the more recent Haunted (a disturbing and effective 1920s period-piece starring Aidan Quinn and Kate Beckinsale), The Woman In Black harks back to the subject matter and style of an earlier era.

Period pieces don’t appeal to everyone, and if your idea of a ghost is the girl who emerges from the bottom of the slimy well in the Japanese-inspired The Ring, I doubt The Woman In Black will appeal.

Our cultural notion of what constitutes a scary ghost story has changed in many ways since Scrooge was haunted by his dead partner Marley in Charles DickensA Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas, but it’s my belief that the components of a great ghost story exist in The Woman In Black.

As one reviewer said about the gothic ghost-story genre of The Woman In Black:

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. She’s seen and heard calling and weeping for her babies, and is said to abduct and kill children.

What makes The Woman In Black particularly good is that it follows the rules of all deeply frightening ghost stories told in the English Romantic gothic tradition. One important detail is the rambling, decrepit old mansion, with its typically isolated location. Eel Marsh House is miles away from the hovels of the distressed villagers who all seem annoyingly medieval and superstitious until things get tough. The lonely house sits surrounded by a terrible marsh with black, sucking mud, the kind that all the best English ghost stories warn you about, and even Conan Doyle made use of to great effect in Hound of the Baskervilles.

As in Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” Eel Marsh House itself has a malevolent presence. The desolate location, alone in the middle of muddy marshland, is crucial to evoke the horror Arthur Kipps feels when he is faced with what lies beneath the mud.

Without giving too much away, a deeply disturbing, and even terrifying, moment occurs when something emerges from the mud while Arthur Kipps looks out the window one dark and stormy night. I know the viewing public is now made up of mostly jaded 20-somethings accustomed to ubiquitous blood and gore, but this turning-point in the story represents neither.

Instead, it is something that, if it actually happened to you, would make you feel more than a little insane. That’s the kind of writing really good ghost stories rely on; the kind where you’re in the story, imagining this terrible moment happening to you, as you slowly lose your mind. As long as you’re not inured to subtlety, I think The Woman In Black has some truly unsettling, if not actually terrifying, moments.

Viewers who’ve dismissed the movie have their attention diverted by crows flapping and Daniel Radcliffe, who was, arguably, not the best choice to carry this story. His strong association with Harry Potter evokes memories of those movies, and the viewer is distracted, continually seeing him as The Boy Who Lived. As an actor, he is developing, but he’s not yet sufficiently mature to carry off the emotional nuances of a story as layered as The Woman In Black

One of the themes in The Woman In Black that becomes problematic, that leads to the loss of the willing suspension of disbelief, has to do with the children in the story. In my opinion, in spite of two notable exceptions, small children, no matter how eerie their makeup, do not belong in a scary ghost story; caring about what happens to them is extremely distracting. Ghost stories with children work when the children’s characters exist somewhere on the continuum of irritatingly-troublesome to downright evil. When they’re a pain in the neck, they’re a perpetual distraction, the fragile vase you have to watch continuously so it won’t be broken.

This concern didn’t come up in The Others, for example. In The Others, as in Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw, the children’s difficult or irritating behavior adds to the tense atmosphere. This is not the case in The Woman In Black; in this movie, we’re asked to feel compassion and concern for children that, in my opinion, conflicts with something fundamental to the ghost story genre. It then becomes somehow obscene to feel any thrill at the presence of the ghost; one must do one’s duty and rescue these children from her terrifying clutches. As in The Turn of The Screw, however, the horror never dies, since the ghost is implacable.  

Classified as horror, the original story by Susan Hill is a Gothic-style ghost story about a menacing spectre haunting a small English town, whose appearance foreshadows the death of children. In this way, the ghost is similar to the Gaelic banshee, but this ghost exists out of spite, and is less of a warning and more of a threat.

It’s easier to be scared by The Others, since I’m not also asked to rescue the children in it; they have a mother and a father, or so we are led to believe. For those who either don’t remember it, or haven’t seen it, The Others also focused on children, but their bad behavior added to the overall tension of the movie. Unlike the movie version of The Woman In BlackThe Others holds onto its grim secret until right before the very end of the movie, at which time the viewer learns everything, moments before the protagonist, played by Nicole Kidman, does.

The Woman In Black breaks one cardinal rule of a good ghost story, if you ask me: it gives away its secrets far too early, and the secret itself is not scary, although it is upsetting and unpleasant.

The Woman In Black herself has one of the most important qualities a believable ghost must have: implacable revenge. Plus, her designers have made her really scary-looking, the kind of creepy you might hope exists, but are secretly damned glad is actually (most likely) impossible. Ghosts aren’t real, right? Let’s pray they’re not.

Unfortunately, the deeper mystery to this story, its raison d’être, is revealed too easily, after which the story reaches its denouement too quickly, but this all happens about two-thirds of the way through the movie. This means that a great deal of time is spent in the first third of the movie setting up the characters. Somehow, this pacing feels wrong, but mostly it’s just the easy reveal of the Woman In Black’s reason for revenge that feels almost anticlimactic. I was like, oh big deal. Get over it. But you can’t say that to a vengeful ghost, and it occurs to me that if you’re crazy before you die, I guess your ghost is crazy too.

Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Arthur Kipp, a young lawyer whose job it is to review the papers of the previous owner of the creepy house, has much to learn before he brings emotional range to a character who has not only lost his young wife during childbirth, but is also raising a son. There’s something missing from the way he directs his attention, the way he moves his eyes, his sometimes flat tone of voice. He doesn’t often convey the kind of emotion that tells me his character feels any deep fear.

Also, unfortunately for Radcliffe, not enough time has passed between Harry Potter fame and his new projects. When he boards a steam train, all I can see is the Hogwarts’ Express. He gazes out the train window, and I am reminded of The Prisoner of Azkaban’s brilliant dissolve, the moment when director Alfonso Cuarón takes the audience through Harry’s lonely, desperate glance out the rain-spattered black train window, as it makes its way to Hogwarts, and on to the black, rain-spattered roadway as the carriages convey students up to the castle.

Much better (and more experienced, obviously) an actor is Ciarán Hinds, who plays Samuel Daily, the wealthy local “lord of the manor,” who provides what little rational, ‘scientific’ thinking can be found amongst the people of the village, all of whom are scared out of their wits by their fear of the implacably vengeful ghost. The thing is, the villagers have it right; she’s got an axe to grind, because someone treated her unfairly, and she’s not going to let it go, either. The Victorian period was good at begetting fictional characters (always women, too—strange coincidence?) whose madness tended to define them, à la mad Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre.

More recently than Jane Eyre, the “vengeful crazy woman who will cause you havoc and destruction” theme was taken up by Daphne Du Maurier, who wrote Rebecca (1938). In Rebecca, the ghost is never seen, but her destructive presence is felt just as surely as it is in The Woman In Black.  Susan Hill apparently created a ghost with an evil, vengeful spirit, much like Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” and those ghosts have a will of their own. 

Click the link for an online version of the book “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson.

I give The Woman In Black an A for building tension, creating claustrophobic and cobwebbed ambience; makeup (the ghost is unusually believable), and certain special effects (that which emerges from the mud stands out as deeply upsettingly creepy). There has never been, as far as I remember (and I’ve seen many, many creepy movies, ranging from elegant to shabby, through the years, including some weird movies in strange languages) a movie that has managed to create the perfect haunted house, but The Woman In Black’s designers have done it.

Others will recognize this as a perfect addition to the English creepy-Gothic hysterical-woman ghost story genre, and will rejoice there’s finally a movie that brings together certain elements that have previously existed in stories and in one’s imagination, but never on film. I found most of these elements to be very effective, and although the pace of the movie is odd and somewhat erratic (not scary, moviemakers, just inconsistent), and some of the acting is not convincing, I was, nonetheless, impressed by The Woman In Black. The quality of my night has changed subtly, but it’s all the doing of my inner mind, which has been shown that which perhaps it ought not have been.

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