The Woman In Black Review: From Hogwarts To Hammer

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (12A): On General Release Friday 10th February

Susan Hill’s 1983 ghost story classic has been adapted numerous times for radio, TV and most notably stage – running in the West End for a remarkable 23 years. Quite why it’s taken so long to make it to the big screen is a mystery in its own right but it turns out that it’s worth the wait as this version is an assuredly crafted and unsettling old-fashioned horror.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor struggling to get over the death of his wife in childbirth, who is sent to a remote village to clear up the personal effects of a recently deceased old woman.  When he gets there, he’s unnerved to find the local populace is not only terrified but inexplicably hostile to his arrival.  Discovering the local legend of a spectre that haunts the old house, he resolves to solve the mystery of the woman in black.

The Woman In Black marks Daniel Radcliffe’s first big screen outing since the Harry Potter series. If anything he’s a little young for the role – it’s hard to put complete faith in a character who’s supposed to have a four year old son.  Slightly dodgy casting aside, he’s good when it comes to looking scared out of his wits in a creepy house.

It’s in the quieter moments where he’s required to carry some greater  emotional heft that things start to falter; not calamitously so, but enough to level the same criticism that has dogged his acting through his tenure at Hogwarts – stilted stagey delivery and decided woodenness.

Thankfully, the whole production is lifted by some assured direction from James Watkins. Some of the best horrors manifest an underlying sense of dread, a persistently unsettling pant-wetting fear rather than overt shock tactics. Here fear is allowed to grow through a fantastic marshalling of atmosphere and tone, helped enormously by the cinematography by Tim Maurice Jones – hitherto known mainly for his work on a number of Guy Ritchie projects – who keeps the house suitably gloomy and full of imagined pitfalls.

For the most part, The Woman In Black features the familiar rhythm of creepy build up followed by a jumpy scare.  And in that vein, the frights, although predictable, are effective. But it really shines when the expected scares don’t come – when the catharsis that a good shock provides doesn’t arrive and the dread is allowed to linger and spread.

A good rule of horror is that what an audience can imagine is always more frightening than what they can see and identify. Watkins knows this well and keeps glimpses of the eponymous Woman brief – here an eye, there a flickering shadow – and consequently there’s a persistent sensation that she’s watching and waiting from every murky corner.

Despite an odd casting choice, Radcliffe proves that he can handle a role beyond The Boy That Lived but it’s Watkins as director who emerges as the real star.  Disquieting and perpetually uncomfortable, it’s more frightening than its 12A certificate would have you believe.

Follow Jez Sands on Twitter.