Made in Britain: The Woman in Black
One of Aesop’s most famous fables has the moral that familiarity breeds contempt. In my case, I genuinely think I hit this point with this new Hammer Horror adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. If there’s one ghost story out there that I know inside and out, then this one is it- I’ve read the book, seen the BBC adaptation, and seen it twice at the Fortune Theatre in the West End, where it is now one of London’s longest running plays. However, Mrs. Jarv had never seen it, and the trailer piqued her interest enough, being as the supernatural chiller is probably her favourite genre in horror, to put aside her instinctive dislike of all things Hammer. So what with it being Valentine’s Day yesterday, was there a more fitting option than to go to the nice cinema with the comfy sofa and table service to hopefully score a few cheap scares?
The film opens with one of its best scenes. A group of small girls are playing in a room, before committing suicide simultaneously. This is exceptional work, actually, and one of the few times where the death of a child in the film is integral to the plot and not done for cheap shock effect. We’re then introduced to Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a lawyer with issues. He’s despatched by his firm to Northumbria to go over the personal papers contained in Eel Marsh House. On arrival, the locals aren’t particularly friendly, aside from Mr. Daily (Ciaran Hinds) and his half-nutty missus (Janet McTeer). Nevertheless, Kipps will not be put off, and he makes his way out to the house. He spends the rest of the film being tormented by an insane ghost, while the town’s kids die in messy and mostly disgusting ways. To go into any more detail will spoil, but I will address the third act in a moment- and I’ll invisitxt it.
What this amounts to is a bit of a curate’s egg of a film: it’s good in parts. There are several problems to it that I’ll come to in a moment, but firstly, there are notable strengths to this film. The first is the location: Eel Marsh House. Whoever did the location work here deserves a big pat on the back, because he’s found an isolated, geographically spectacular setting that creates tension just by the way it looks. This is an outstanding gothic mansion separated from the mainland by a causeway in almost perpetual fog. The House itself is intrinsically frightening and you can see why the locals stay away from it.
Secondly, the performances for the most part are good. Hinds and McTeer are excellent in support, and Radcliffe, after a slightly wooden start improves all the way through the film. Given that Arthur is on screen almost the entire time, this is a real bonus, because the film would have died a horrible, painful death if he hadn’t been up to par.
The play version of this is quite simply one of the most frightening things that I’ve ever seen. One of its key strengths is in clever use of sound, with tape recordings of a horse and carriage being used to real effect. It’s only 2 acts, and operates to set you up in the first act, and then rip you apart in the second. The simplicity of the set design works a treat, and the eventual climax of the play will have even the hardest man out there suffering from clammy hands and cold sweats. Needless to say, the best section of the film is the middle act, and this is the section that follows the play the closest. When Radcliffe is ensconced in the house, the tension in the movie peaks, and as with the play, the use of a rocking chair to generate fright is simply magnificent.
However, there are significant, as mentioned, problems. The first is that director James Watkins (a man with a somewhat patchy resumé, having both the excellent Eden Lake and the fucking atrocious The Descent 2 on it) is aiming for an American Werewolf in London vibe to the way the locals treat Radcliffe. Except it isn’t successful, and no matter how many times we return to the village to have him told to bugger off back to London, or witness tragedy, it still doesn’t work. In fact, these frequent interludes in the village actually grow seriously annoying, because they break the tension generated out in the marshes.
Secondly, The Woman in Black was adapted by Jane Goldman who is simply a lousy writer. Her credits (for want of a better expression) include Kick Ass, and the utterly atrocious X-Foetus. Neither of these films have a good script, with X-Miscarriage in particular being terrible and full of plotholes. The Woman in Black suffers from her meddling, feeling frequently disjointed and with a third act that sucks badly. It’s no surprise that the third act is the section that deviates from the source material- there’s nothing in the play or the novel as I recall remotely similar to this, and the fact that her imagination only extended as far as the most cliché ridden ghost story crap out there makes me actively angry. Incidentally, you could almost be accused of suspecting she only has a career by duty of being married to one of the UK’s most overrated comedians/ film critics, but that would be cynicism.
Which brings me on to the third act. DON MURPHY SIZED SPOILERS AHOY: YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
The play ends with Kipps chasing the dog out into the marsh and being rescued by Daily. He then returns to London believing he has escaped, only for the ghost to show up in a final twist of the knife and kill his entire family, but, crucially, leaving him alive. The second act of the film ends on him being rescued from the marsh. This is fine.
Then comes the garbage. For some reason, best known to themselves, Watkins and Goldman decide to create a whole idiotic “reunite the dead family” storyline with Kipps and Daily digging the child’s body out of the fens before putting on an impromptu séance to summon the Woman. All should be peachy, except Watkins then cuts to one of the Woman’s letter’s and a chorus of children repeat “Never forgive” over and over again. It then cuts back to Radcliffe at the station where the boy wanders out into the tracks. They’re both killed and reunited with his dead wife in the afterlife.
My problems with this are multiple. Firstly, the digging up the body thing is as awful and hackneyed an idea as is out there in a ghost story. It even happens in fucking Ringu for Christ’s sake. If you do insist on inventing a stupid third act for the film, then please for the love of god try to find something more original than this. Secondly, by cutting to the Never Forgive letter, Watkins strips the train station sequence of any tension, and as a result any fear. He’s made it totally inevitable what has to happen next, and there’s such an easy fix to this that I can’t believe nobody spotted it: remove this, have Kipps meet his lad at the station. He sees the Woman on the other platform, she points at him and THEN you get “Never forgive”. Bang, fucking easy, and if I can see it, then I’m astonished nobody else could.
There are other non-spoilery problems to it, and one of the big ones is lack of focus. The titular Woman in Black is the fucking threat in the film, she should be the focus of the story and the spectre to deliver the fear. However, this doesn’t happen, because the script introduces a whole clan of kiddy-ghosts that menace the characters as and when required. This is a massive mistake, frankly, as although child phantoms are intrinsically frightening, the image of the emaciated woman shrouded in black is a powerful and visually striking one. She doesn’t need help to scare, and the film would have been far better if it had just stuck to her as the focus.
Just a quick word on the sound before I sum up. Some recent films *cough* Insidious *cough* utilised Minor Keys to generate tension. This is one of the established tropes of Horror, and is a damned effective one if done sparingly. If overused, however, the minor key simply signifies that something creepy is about to happen, so you begin to expect and anticipate the jump scares. Ergo, they don’t actually make you jump. The Woman in Black does also use minor keys in the score, however, it uses them sparsely, and by far the most frightening section of the film is only accompanied by the sound of the rocking chair. As a result of this, it does deliver enough jump scares to have Mrs. Jarv hopping all over the place but never overdoes it.
Overall, this is an OK film. It’s nice to see that it’s made some cash back, because I want new Hammer to do well. However, I also want it to do well with bloody Goldman not allowed anywhere near the script. I am totally meh to The Woman in Black, because it really isn’t bad, and Mrs. Jarv really enjoyed it, but I seem to be incapable of overlooking the problems and comparing it to the older superior versions.
At the end of the day, though, the best advice I can give is this: See the play.
Until next time,