Where to begin? I saw the film a matter of hours ago and this is my first impression of it. Inevitably I couldn’t help making comparisons with the TV film and book – hard as I tried to push them from my mind. It was clear, however, from the outset that this was a very different beast.
For me, Woman in Black is a provincial tale. Everything about it is understated – it is the creeping horror, captured in both the book and the TV film that single it out and, in a way, contribute to its effectiveness.
Compared to the book and the TV film, this production is big. Everything has been ramped up, Hollywood style. I have a long established soft spot for Hammer and I’m pleased that they are rebranding themselves as a producer of quality horror. Rubber bats bouncing around on elastic and women with heaving bosoms were, undoubtedly, part of Hammer’s charm – but it was always capable of making some genuinely disturbing pieces of cinema. For me the most endearing aspect of Hammer was its essential Britishness. Yet this latest production has, in my opinion, borrowed heavily from other cinematic traditions, as I shall discuss.
Eel Marsh house is now more of a mansion. Lost is the stark bleak exterior of the ’89 film. The island towers above the Nine-Lives causeway on an outcrop of rock with wooded sides. I found this disappointing. The loneliness and defencelessness of the house and its surrounds have been lost. No longer does Arthur seem stranded and exposed, instead he is entangled amongst the undergrowth. The house with its jumble of blood red-walls, horrific Victorian toys and decaying furnishings has no character. It is a cliché.
Let me stress this. Eel Marsh House is a character of the Woman in Black. From its history, its isolation, its horrors and exposure – Eel Marsh House is a part of the landscape of the story. To turn it into a Hollywood set-piece leads it to lose its menace. The island is scary because there is nowhere to hide. If the Woman comes for you across the grave yard from the ruins – you will see her coming and you will have nowhere to run. The black outline of this ghost against the bleak, washed out and ravaged landscape encapsulates what is at the heart of this story: bleak, unrelenting, horror.
As this movie attempts to ramp up the horror, it loses the essence of the tale. I would have liked to see a film which focussed in on the house – giving us more of a sense of the place and its dark history. Instead here the story pans out giving us a broader view. Arthur’s story is altered and expanded. We learn more about the citizens of Crythin Gifford and the things they have suffered – and somehow, this cheapens the experience.
The peasants are revolting. Or rather underdeveloped pitchfork wielding bumpkins you might expect from a 1970s Hammer film – but really? The innkeeper is dour and aggressive. Mr Jerome is insipid. Sam Daily – so excellently portrayed in the TV film – has become little more than a flat plot device.
Let me pause here to have a little rant about Mrs Daily. Dear god. Have we really not moved on from the time of portraying bereaved women as loonies who like to play dress up their pet pooches in baby clothes? Can we not get past the notion of shoe-horning spiritualism onto any female character over the age of 40? But the clichés don’t stop there.
Arthur Kipps is no longer a turn of the century gentleman. He isn’t. He’s a 21st century man in a nice waistcoat. I’m not criticising Radcliffe – I thought he was excellent, apart from a couple of moments when he gave Ciaran Hinds that Dumbledore look. I managed to resist shouting ‘He’s off to Hogwarts’ when he boarded the steam train, and I bit my hand to stop from shouting ‘look out, Dementors!’ once he was in the carriage but it took some restraint. Radcliffe is good. His performance is understated, sympathetic and believable. It was a slight shock to the system to see him playing a father but he accomplished it admirably.
Radcliffe’s acting aside; the biggest cliché in the film surrounds Arthur. Not only is he a single father *groan*, struggling to come to terms with the loss of his young, beautiful wife *groan*, forced into a job he hates by a cruel business man *groan*, trying to do the best he can for his kid *groan* BUT he also keeps seeing his dead wife, floating around in immaculate white. Do you see what they did there? The Woman in Black with a woman in white? I would like to tell you that Arthur’s wife doesn’t ultimately save him from the corrupting influence of the woman in Black – I would like to, but I can’t. Yes. There’s a saccharine Hollywood ending. You have been warned.
The Woman in Black herself is menacing. No horrific makeup effects have been used to achieve the effect, she is – as she should be – simply a woman in black. But somehow, pushing her into the back ground, giving us brief glimpses of her amidst the clutter of the house reduces the effect. In the TV film we face her from the start. There is no escaping her. It is because she occupies the screen in such a unique way that she is so disturbing.
There was a nice shot of her standing in daylight amidst the trees that felt more in keeping with what I identify as the classic Woman in Black. It reminded me sharply of a similar scene from the adaptation of the The Turn of the Screw, the Deborah Kerr film The Innocents where the ghost of the nanny stands at the edge of the lake in broad daylight. There is something so disturbing about seeing a ghost in broad daylight, brazenly observing the human interlocutor. And so it should be with the Woman in Black. She does not creep in shadows. She is angry, bleak and inescapable – like the landscape. And here, this feeling of inescapable malevolence is shattered.
Almost everything from the book has been changed, sometimes subtly sometimes past recognition. The inclusion of the ghost of Nathaniel, crawling out of his grave in the marsh, was disturbing. But the subsequent attempt by Arthur to appease the woman by recovering the boy’s corpse and laying it in her grave felt heavily borrowed from The Ring. Other aspects of Japanese ‘angry, wronged, female ghost’ were evident. Notably the screaming face at the window was reminiscent of The Grudge.
Ultimately, this film has totally changed the tone of both the book and the earlier film. This is a film which relies upon the kind of cheap scares of slasher films, rather than the brooding, malevolent hopelessness evoked in the book and TV film.
But that’s not to say this film doesn’t have its triumphs. It is genuinely scary – even if the scares are transitory, fleeting shocks that won’t stay with you. The film does make an attempt to explore the anguish of the townsfolk in showing us the grizzly deaths of its children. But this felt ultimately more like cheap shock tactics rather than anything which genuinely moves the viewer. We are forced to sympathise with these people – and Arthur – but ultimately the effect is Maudlin, irritating.
Despite my complaints I did like this film. It did scare me – and that’s the most important thing. I peeped from behind my coat when the Woman came screaming through the house. There were moments which will stay with me, the girl looking to the woman in the burning house, Nathaniel crawling from his grave, the face at the window, the eye peering through the pictograph. And the Woman in Black herself looked perfect and she was menacing, even if she had lost something of her character in translation to the big screen.