The Woman in Black

"Don't go chasing shadows, Arthur."

Desperate to keep his job and support his young son after his wife dies in childbirth, Arthur Kipps travels Oop North to go through the paperwork of the late Alice Drablow. But one there, he finds the locals not at all happy about him spending any time in Alice's run-down property, sitting neglected and isolated on a peninsula that becomes an island when the tide comes in...

It's Halloween! Ooo-eee-ooo-eee etc. To celebrate, I'm posting about one of my favourite spooky movies, the 2012 adaptation of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe.

The Woman in Black is about as traditional a ghost story as they come. Alice Drablow's home couldn't look more like a haunted house if it was a fairground attraction, the initial appearance of the frightened locals recalls the terrified peasants in many a Dracula adaptation, it has a gorgeously realised period setting (the novella was published in 1983, so it's a self-consciously period story) and I don't think I'm spoiling anything to say there's a ghost that takes the form of a woman in black, who could have stepped right out of the pages of any of the collections of 'real-life' ghost stories I used to love reading as a teenager. There's even a huge collection of creepy toys that no one in their right mind would ever buy for a child...

The film is ideal for those of us who love something a bit spooky but aren't overly keen on gore. Like The Sixth Sense, the film uses gore sparingly (and indeed, there's less of it than in the M Night Shyamalan film) and privileges atmospheric tension and build-up and movements in the shadows over more icky horror. It's also beautifully shot; the sands around the house and the desolate countryside all look fantastic, while the cut-off nature of the house (recalling The Others, which is probably one of the closest films to this in tone) both enhances the scare factor and provides dramatically contrasting areas in which the action takes place, between house, woods and desolate mud-flats.

I have a whole weird relationship with this film where I've been known to watch it as a comfort movie, wrapped up in warm woolly jumpers on the sofa with a cuppa and some candles lit. Given that (at least until you know every jump scare off by heart) it's a fairly scary movie, I've been told this is a little bit strange. I think the answer lies in Daniel Radcliffe's central performance. While not especially attracted to Radcliffe, since he became famous when he was 11 and I was 18, he's one of those actors I just love to watch, whatever he's doing. He has such a pleasant, friendly manner, even when playing a withdrawn and troubled character, that he's exactly the person you want to follow around a creepy old house for an hour or so, even if he's technically far too young to be a turn-of-the-century widower with a child (if he was a woman, his age - 21 at the time, playing a character with a 2-or-3 year-old child - would be perfect, but men usually married later).

There's also a philosophical melancholy underpinning the film, which is underplayed but rather nice. Ciaran Hinds' Sam Daily and Radcliffe's Kipps are deeply sad, wistful characters and their conversations about the nature of what exactly is going on are very touching.

There are numerous different versions of The Woman in Black, but this is the only one I've seen so far. Mum has told me many times how wonderfully terrifying the 1989 TV film, which unfortunately doesn't seem to be currently available, is, and apparently the stage show is quite an experience. (Fun fact - Adrian Rawlins, who played Harry Potter's dad James in the Potter films, played Arthur in the 1989 TV movie of The Woman in Black). It seems to be the consensus among those who've seen them all that this film is perhaps the least terrifying, which is fine by me, it's quite scary enough! I also get the impression, from poking about the net reading about the other versions, that the ending is different in every version - for myself, I like the sound of this one best, based on description alone. It seems to me the most satisfying as a viewer.

If you fancy something a bit spooky for Halloween, to sit yourself in front of as the nights draw in, I would heartily recommend this film. It's got just the balance of horror and comfort that I like in a good ghost story - four out of four mysterious women in black veils.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


Kathy said...

I hated this movie. And, it doesn't really have to do with the movie itself (although I got really tired of all the jump scares. One of the reasons The Exorcist and things like that are scary are due to the slow builds. Jump scares are a release of tension.)

But, my feelings about the movie are really due to how the audience around you can make or break a movie a lot of times. This could have been the best movie ever. But, whenever I think of it, I think about the stupid audience I saw it with.

It was a bunch of pre-teen girls in the front row of the theater who screamed at EVERYTHING. A face in the window? "AAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!" A shadow moving? "AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!" A leaf blowing by? "AAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!" The five minutes of movie where there's a jump scare every 15 seconds? "Aahh! Aahh! Aahh! Aahh!"

It got exhausting.

They screamed at everything. A guy behind me kept yelling at the girls to shut up. Which amused me, but it just added to the whole experience of not having fun at the theater during this movie.


ChrisB said...

I saw this several years ago on the stage. The single most frightened I have ever been in a theatre. I have never really thought about watching it on film, but this version sounds like something I would enjoy.

Great review and happy Halloween!

Namastenancy said...

I saw an older version - BBC (I think.) It was unbelievably scary. At the end, when you just know what is going to happen, the suspense is unbearable. But the version with Harry Potter in Victorian clothes is good as well and I always like Cairan Hinds.

Namastenancy said...

A well written comparison between the 1989 version and the current one:

Patti said...

The original 1989 version is on You Tube!

Juliette said...

ooh, I must go find it, I've been dying to see it for ages! Mum has told me so often how great it was!