If you enjoy having your heart violently shocked about once a minute then run, don’t walk to the nearest showing of The Woman In Black. Despite its slick design and Gothic pedigree, this is pure cinematic defibrillation in the vein of Paranormal Activity. If, however, you’re looking for something beyond the visceral thrill, you won’t find it here. For a film crowded with ghosts, The Woman In Black is oddly lacking in soul. But the real ghost of the piece, the one that won’t stop “oooo-ing” distractingly in your ear, is, of course, Harry Potter, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Go Away. This role marks Daniel Radcliffe’s first post-Potter effort on the big screen. And it’s just that. An effort. The paper thin plot hinges entirely on his narrow, boyish shoulders and he’s simply not up to the task. As Arthur Kipps, the hero of the piece, Radcliffe is asked to play not only a man, but a father, a widower, and someone at the very end of his rope. Watching Hogwarts’ most famous alum wearily shake his flask to ensure there’s enough hooch for his train trip is disconcerting to say the least.
After a stern “this is your last chance, Kipps” lecture from his boss, Arthur, a solicitor, is off on the non-Hogwarts express to a gloomy seaside town populated by glowering adults and frightened, cherubic children. It’s Arthur’s unlucky task to comb through the wreckage Eel Marsh House for any documents that would help settle the estate. The house? It’s haunted. But you already knew that. What ensues are grisly deaths, malicious spirits and more violin crescendoes than you can shake an axe at. I will give the filmmakers (and specifically the production designer Kave Quinn) their due, it’s one hell of a haunted house. The true dazzling star of the film, Eel Marsh House is set in the middle of a vast, foggy, well, marsh. The only way in or out is the (I sh*t you not) Nine Lives Causeway which daily floods with the tide, stranding any occupants, living or otherwise. The swooping aerial shots of a lonely cart or automobile traversing the treacherous road are jaw-dropping and hint at what a truly excellent film this might have been. The production team also get full marks in interior design. The manor itself is packed to the rotting rafters with cobwebby merchandise from Mrs. Havisham’s House Of Horrors. And as Kipps insists on investigating every bang, creak, boom and scratch, he encounters room after room of wind-up organ monkeys, cracked ceramic clowns and headless dollies. It’s a horror fetishist’s dream.
But is horror fetishism enough to sustain a modern audience? The Woman In Black marks the return of the legendary horror masters, Hammer Films; among their first efforts since the mid-1980s. But in the intervening years film audiences have been spoiled by richer, more psychologically engaging examples of the genre. What The Woman In Black lacks is any subtlety, any nuance, any question that what we’re seeing may be the fevered imaginings of an over-worked, grief-stricken young man. The plot hints at Kipps trauma (his wife’s death, his discomfort with being a father), but Radcliffe is unable to deliver. And, possibly, such a straightforward ghost story could work when anchored by a very strong performance (e.g. Nicole Kidman in The Others or Naomi Watts in The Ring), but, once again, all we’re left with is Harry Potter and his unconvincing stubble and red-rimmed eyes walking fearfully up and down the same hallway, chasing the things that go bump in the night. Unlike the Potter franchise, the superior acting talent in this film (in this case from the fantastic Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer as Kipps’ only allies) highlight Radcliffe’s shortcomings rather than buoy him up. So, in the end, without that central performance, all we’re left with is a film full of cheap tricks that tingle your spine rather than truly unnerve you. The ghosts in turn of the century threads and CGI-Grudge-goth makeup won’t haunt you after you’ve left the theater, but the saccharine coda might.