After having done battle with vicious dragons and evil basilisks and giant spiders and the Dark Lord himself, you’d think that a simple haunted house would be a walk in the park for Daniel Radcliffe. In THE WOMAN IN BLACK, the former boy wizard plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who travels to the middle of nowhere, England, to finalize some paperwork relating to the death of a local woman who owned a creepy old mansion known as the Eel Marsh House. Upon arrival, Kipps encounters wary and foreboding townsfolk who let him know that he is not welcome and should leave immediately. But why? Turns out the mansion is haunted by the ghost of a woman whose own child was once taken away from her -- and who, legend has it, seeks vengeance by killing a local child any time someone catches a glimpse of her. For this reason, superstitious locals keep as far away from the mansion as possible; Kipps, of course, unwittingly starts the cycle anew.
The film’s biggest strength lies in the way it sets an eerie stage. The Victorian-era setting and cinematography are used nicely, and the Eel Marsh House itself is a work of art: Gothic, dilapidated, shrouded by marshlands and mist and located on a secluded island that can only be reached by navigating a long & winding road during low tide; when the tide rises, the house -- and anyone inside -- is cut off from the rest of the world. The interior of the house is even better, filled with some legitimately unsettling mise-en-scene, ranging from mysterious handprints to gruesome porcelain dolls and the scariest cymbal-crashing monkey since the cover of the Stephen King book, “Skeleton Crew.” Tension is heightened by spectral images that you may not even always see in the background (it may take several viewings to notice them all), but whose presence adds an aura of dread.
Unfortunately, the film falters when it comes time to actually follow through with the big scares. They are almost always horribly telegraphed, and not in an anticipatory, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sort of way -- more like an eye-rolling, “All right, already” sort of way. Even worse, the filmmakers seem to be of the belief that loud noises = big scares, which is not necessarily true. (Sometimes loud noises are just loud noises, which is annoying.) There is also a surprising reliance on Japanese-horror-style imagery, which became an overused cliché about five years ago -- the effectiveness of the Woman in Black herself is weakened for this very reason. Off the top of my head, I can think of exactly two moments that sent the slightest shivers down my spine (one involving the aforementioned monkey), which is simply not good enough. A disappointing waste of some very good build-up.
As for Radcliffe, the biggest knock against him has always been that his acting can be a bit wooden, and there is some of that here -- but he is generally solid and game for whatever ridiculousness the filmmakers throw at him. Ciaran Hinds (one of the great character actors working today) as a wealthy landowner and Kipps’ only friend in town, and recent Oscar nominee Janet McTeer as his deranged wife, provide some excellent support.
Daniel Radcliffe is a pretty good bet to have a solid career in the aftermath of the most successful movie franchise of all time. He’s a fine actor and is a damn nice guy. THE WOMAN IN BLACK may be a hit based on his pedigree alone (the teenyboppers will surely come out in droves), but as a scary movie, it could have used a little more magic.