Hammer Films re-emerges with a picture reminiscent of the studio’s own glory days and classic Universal horror films of the 1930’s but carrying a few nasty habits gleaned from contemporary Hollywood productions. On the whole, director James Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman have forged an effective, traditional haunted house movie replete with gloomy atmosphere and spine-tingling chills. The Woman in Black may not break any new ground in the genre, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do.
Daniel Radcliffe gives an understated, no-frills performance as a lawyer in Edwardian England haunted by the memory of his deceased wife. Our protagonist, as in so many supernatural horror stories in this vein, is tasked by his employer with departing the comfort of civilization to attend to some business in the bleak countryside where reason gives way to superstition and the advancements of science gives way to supernatural terrors. After a lengthy and ominous trip, Radcliffe arrives at a mansion shrouded in fog and set in the middle of a foreboding marsh. Ostensibly there to attend to the estate of a client, he spends most of his time reviewing yellow photographs and reading creepy letters.
The setting exudes creepiness, but the director gets off to a shaky start, relying on a series of “jump scares” for the first third of the movie. An early exploration of a basement reveals a clanging faucet, a trip to one of the upstairs bedrooms ends with the unexpected squawk of a crow, supporting characters pop up behind Radcliffe, each incident punctuated with a jarring sound effect. Just as the movie begins to feel like a conventional PG-13 horror film, content to startle the audience with loud noises rather than through genuinely frightening scenes, the titular Woman in Black makes her presence felt, and things get interesting.
The Woman in Black ultimately succeeds when striving for sustained chills instead of easy “jump” scares. A horrific visage emerges at the end of a long, shadowy hallway, an unseen horror claws at the other side of a wooden door, and the apparitions of murdered children stalk the mansion grounds. These images do not merely startle, but inspire genuine dread and are reminiscent of the old Hammer brand. Most of the horror effects appear to be practical, and the use of CGI is unobtrusive.
After a few early missteps, The Woman in Black regains its footing through sound, traditional horror filmmaking techniques and emerges as a solid genre exercise. If you don’t catch this one in theaters, at least give it a rental. At least then you can temper the annoyance of those early “jump” scares by turning down the volume on your TV.