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,

Jarv.

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

38 responses to “Made in Britain: The Woman in Black”

  1. Jarv says :

    An OK film.

    Frankly.

    That is all.

  2. Droid says :

    Cool. I’ll see this one on video I think. Suppose I should check out the play, or read the book.

    • Jarv says :

      Take the missus to the play on an afternoon. It’s £20 a ticket I think.

      • Jarv says :

        Also, Jonah said that Radcliffe is too young. I disagree- I think he’s about the right age

      • Droid says :

        Good to hear Harry is good in this. I hope his career kicks on. Seems like a decent guy.

      • Jarv says :

        He’s actually better in this than in any Potter movie that I’ve seen. He grows into the part- starts a touch wooden and then improves a lot over the film.

      • Droid says :

        He’s quite good in the final HP.

      • Jarv says :

        That’ll be one of the two I haven’t seen. Incidentally, Lovefilm have sent them. I may Megareview the whole harry potter series.

      • Droid says :

        That’s a big task. Only 2 good films out of 8. 2 crap films. 1 meh. 3 treading water.

        Tough series.

      • Jarv says :

        HP1- crap
        Hp2- crap
        HP3- Good
        HP4- Meh
        HP5- Crap, but that’s because the book is crap
        HP6- crap
        HP7.1- Not seen
        HP7.2- Not seen.

        No, actually I’ll pass on this one.

      • Droid says :

        Yeah, that’s pretty much what I think. I wouldn’t really say that HP5-7.1 are crap. But they’re the epitome of prolonging the story for no purpose other than she needed to fill 7 books. I reckon you could edit 5, 6 and 7.1 into one decent Potter film and the series would be loads better.

      • Jarv says :

        5 and 6 in particular are both hideously bloated. She needed an editor, badly, but who’s going to have the balls to say that to her?

      • Droid says :

        Philosopher – 223 pages
        Chamber – 251 pages
        Azkaban – 317 pages
        Goblet – 636 pages
        Phoenix – 766 pages
        Prince – 607 pages
        Hallows – 607 pages

        These books should never have been more than 300-odd pages. Look at the leap from Azkaban to Goblet? Fucking doubled the length. That’s the book I quit reading about 200 pages in. I couldn’t give a shit and couldn’t face another 2500 pages of Potter.

      • Droid says :

        What the fuck happens in Phoenix that warrants 766 pages!?

      • Jarv says :

        Nothing. At all. Ditto HBP.

        Terrible books, the pair of them. In Phoenix, Harry’s a prick for 680 pages.

        I can see the justification for the length in Goblet as that’s got all sorts of stuff in it, but even then it’s too long. Ditto Hallows, or Harry Potter and the extended camping trip of doom.

      • Droid says :

        Storytelling-wise Azkaban is her best book that I read. And on evidence of the films, it’s by far her best story.

      • Jarv says :

        Easily.

        The two aren’t unrelated though- Azkaban has a tight frame and isn’t weighed down with hundreds of pages of him polishing his wand while mentally fantasising about Ginny Weasly/ Cho Chang.

      • koutchboom says :

        Isn’t he suppose to be like a married lawyer? That seems like the job for someone over the age of 18.

      • Continentalop says :

        I think you’re a little tough on the HP books. They are ok escapism for kids, except for one little thing…

        They are blatantly racist/elitist if you think about it. Muggles are second class citizens who are genetically predisposed to be outcast and failures and never have any part or importance in the world. How is that a good lesson for kids – you’ve either got it or you don’t, so face facts you might be a loser from birth.

  3. Xiphos0311 says :

    SPOILER

    just out of curiosity how can a ghost kill anybody? I mean besides the obvious of not existing that is, but they are non-corporeal so how does that work?

  4. Bartleby says :

    Good review Jarv. I disagree with some of your issues, but for the most part, yes, those are the problems of the film–particularly the editing of the bit on the platform.

    VERY MILD SPOILERS
    However, I didn’t mind the ‘solve the problem’ bit towards the end because it makes Kipps more proactive and interesting and that scene where he and Hinds are trying to dig something out of the moor was to me one of the creepiest moments of the movie.
    SPOILERS END

    The other things I found easy to overlook, but they keep it from being a great movie. I would say it’s a good one with flaws. I think it’s going to have some rewatch factor, but this is one that’s also far more effective in a theater with the proper sound.

    I think you would have enjoyed it a bit more that way. Particularly the damned rocking chair.

    Radcliffe isn’t too young for the part as it is in the book or in the play. But adding the four year old kid, I thought it was just a tad distracting that. Nothing terrible. I thought Radcliffe basically took this and proved he can carry a movie nearly on his own.

    Although Im glad Hinds was there too, mostly because I think that guy is a hugely underrated actor.

    My review of it was over here: http://popcreature.net/2012/02/03/the-woman-in-black-review-harry-potter-and-the-phantoms-curse/

    • Jarv says :

      I did see it in a cinema with proper sound- the Rocking Chair is devastating, and easily the best bit of the film.

      The solve the problem bit is shite, because it’s so hackneyed, and it’s also completely unbelievable given the location of said problem.

      Not to mention that it’s all so unnecessary.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      Did you start a new website Jonah?

      • Bartleby says :

        yea, Im constantly doing it… I was attempting to streamline it so I was mostly writing about a specific segment of stuff, but I’ll probably go back to PCN again.

        I just dont have the time I used to. Really want to write some book reviews as Ive read quite a bit of stuff lately.

        With any luck I’ll be up and runnng with that by the time the next Termeraire book hits…

        How have you been Xi? I saw your comments on Acts of Valor. I see it Tuesday but could care less.

        Basically just counting the minutes to John Carter now as far as movies are concerned.

        LOVED last week’s Supernatural, btw.

      • koutchboom says :

        I’d stop the clock because it looks like Asylum may actually win for once:

      • Droid says :

        You’re starting up another website?

        I should catch up on SN. Only watched about 3 or 4 eps from this season.

  5. Bartleby says :

    oh, the sofa was in the cinema? brilliant. sorry, a bit tired this morning and read it wrong.

    Actually, I thought Kipps figuring out why no one had done it before and why they now could was kind of inspired for this sort of thing.

  6. ThereWolf says :

    I’ll give this a rental.

    I don’t like Radcliffe – every time I hear his voice he’s usually honking away like an asthmatic donkey. Admittedly, that’s only in clips I’ve seen of ‘Potter’.

    I’m more interested in catching the play though, but I don’t recall ever seeing it on in Manchester. I’ll keep a look-out…

    Nice one, Jarv.

  7. Just Pillow Talk says :

    That’s cool that Potter was decent in this…I thought he was damn good in the last Potter flick. Good to see he should be able to branch out.

    And after watching all the Potter movies last year, I actually like 2, 3, 5, and the last one.

  8. Col. Tigh-Fighter says :

    I’m looking forward to this film. As I have never seen any version of this, it should still hold all its surprises. I’ve been jumping over the spoilers, so am looking forward to a good, old fashioned, scary film.

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