Reviews

The Woman In Black

3

Hammer brings old-school Brit-chills back from the dead.

Curriculum vitae.

Name: Daniel Radcliffe.

Work experience: Boy  wizard (2001-2004). Boy wizard with spots (2005-2009). Nude boy with a horse (2007). Teen wizard (2010-2011).

Every actor knows typecasting is an occupational hazard, but none have ever faced the unique dilemma of Daniel Radcliffe.

Growing up on-screen as Harry Potter, the actor was welded to the role of JK Rowling’s speccy hero for a decade. Potter made him a millionaire many times over, yet it also became a 10-ton millstone.

The definition of a mixed blessing? Yep,  just ask Mark Hamill about the curseof Skywalker... Breaking the mould became harder the longer the Potter series continued.

When Radcliffe appeared in nought but his birthday suit onstage in Equus at the Gielgud Theatre in 2007, there was uproar. How could Harry Potter get his magic wand out on stage?

But it was a sensible gamble and the first sign that Radcliffe might have the balls (ahem) to survive in the big, bad world beyond Hogwarts’ hallowed halls.

Instead of doing the Lindsay Lohan child-actor victory lap of rehab, he followed the Christian Bale route: take the job seriously, learn the craft, make it count. A masterclass in boo-jump horror cinema, The Woman In Black works because of Radcliffe, not in spite of him.

For all the rumbly plumbing and phantom rocking chairs in Eel Marsh House, the real terror here is to be found etched in Radcliffe’s face. When we first meet his young Edwardian solicitor, Arthur Kipps, he’s staring at his own ghostly mug in a mirror:

The consumptive features and sunken, black-ringed eyes of a grieving widower have their own haunting power.

“It’s an absolute joy doing the slow push in on Dan, reading his thoughts and letting the camera drift closer and closer into his eyes,” explains British director James Watkins (previously best known for writing and directing 2008 feral-kids horror Eden Lake) in the disc’s Making Of.

“The camera reads everything he’s feeling.” Although only 22, Radcliffe convinces you his Kipps knows what it is to have loved and lost forever.

Despatched by the senior partner of his firm to the gloomy Yorkshire village of Crythin Gifford, Kipps is ordered to sort through the papers of the deceased owner of a decrepit mansion. It’s a bleak house on a causeway that’s frequently drowned by the tide.

But in the best Hammer tradition, the visitor from the big city is an unwelcome interloper: the villagers don’t want him, the house doesn’t want him, and its ghostly inhabitant is only interested in using him as she sends little ’uns to their deaths.

You can’t help but smile at the irony of it all: Radcliffe killing off his child-actor past in a movie where every tot is in danger.

The dead-kid body count is high yet never grisly since this, the fourth feature from the newly resurrected Hammer Studios, is an old-fashioned kind of shocker (although, in truth, Hammer traditionally always preferred vampires and monsters over spirits).

And despite his pedigree in gore’n’grue coming from the modern-day Eden Lake, Watkins revitalises Hammer’s provincial period chills nicely.

No hoodie horror or torture porn here: just an oldschool ghost movie about things that go bump in the night and where the skill lies in showing less rather than more.

Working from Susan Hill’s 1982 source novel, screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) pulls out every old, dark house cliché going: wind-up toys, demonic dolls, and the ghostly apparition of the black-clad woman herself (Liz White, ho ho) – who owes more than a nod to the vengeful ghosts of J-horrors like Ringu and Ju-On: The Grudge.

What makes it so different, though, is how character-driven it is. “It’s unsettling and frightening but also it’s about loss and how different people deal with death,” offers Radcliffe.

Harking back to a less explicit, spookier kind of horror movie, The Woman In Black’s mirthless chills also remind us why Hammer movies had such appeal in their heyday. It’s been a long time since this kind of uniquely British period horror has been taken seriously on-screen.

The movie’s box-office bonanza in the UK – it’s the most successful home-grown horror in decades – proves that audiences, like Radcliffe himself, are crying out to be treated like adults.

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