The Woman In Black (2012): A classic ghost story with a twist

Woman in Black PosterI like ghost stories.

Ghost stories aren’t always “monster movies” or the kind of horror that makes you jump out of your seat. A good ghost story will leave your skin crawling long after you’ve finished it. A great ghost story will leave you questioning reality at least a little. Sure, there may be a few good jump scares in there, but it’s the underlying sense of unease that really makes the story work.

The Woman in Black does a decent job of doing that. It’s not an action-packed, jump-scare-filled, special effects blockbuster. It’s a slow-burn descent into horror with an unexpected ending that, when it hits you, sticks.

The Plot

Arthur Kipps is a lawyer who’s seen better days. His ability to do his work has suffered greatly over the past four years, ever since his wife died while giving birth to their son. Given one last chance to keep his job, Kipps is sent to the remote village of Cryphin Gifford to attend to the settlement of an estate. The village isn’t all that welcoming and, with no room at the inn, Kipps finds himself staying at the house that is the main holding of the estate he’s settling.

This is, of course, where the ghost in the ghost story comes in. The property is haunted by the titular Woman in Black. Long ago, her young son drowned in the marshes surrounding the estate. His mother blamed the negligence of others and, ever since, has sought vengeance. As part of this, she “steals” children from the nearby village.

As the story presses on, the attacks against Kipps and the children of the village escalate. The once skeptical Kipps soon comes to believe, at least a little bit, in the supernatural root of the problems at hand. When his own son becomes a target, he does what he can to put the ghost to rest.

The Creeping Terror

The pacing of this film is solidly slow, but always moving. The actual level of “unexplainable” things doesn’t jump right out. For a good portion of the film, there is some question as to whether there’s anything more than folklore and superstition to the whole story of the ghost that haunts the estate. The odd occurrences and strange coincidences that are experienced are soon punctuated with some subtle special effect and, eventually, escalate into full-on ghost shenanigans.

No small part of the feeling of dread that permeates this film comes from Daniel Radcliffe, still best known for his portrayal of boy wizard Harry Potter. He brings a thoroughly distraught energy to the role of Kipps, the sense of loss in the man palpable and deep. When that turns around and fuels his desire to protect not just his own son, but all the children the ghost threatens, it’s a believable switch… and the final actions he takes (which I won’t spoil, because they play out so well) make perfect sense in retrospect.

Like many of the well-done ghost stories that I love, the build up of dread happens naturally. It escalates into blatant fear numerous times, but then quiets back down so you don’t know when it will strike again. The tension is constant, but not at a consistent level–so as not to burn the audience out (which often happens in full on, balls-to-the-wall type horror films… which often end up being such an assault on the senses and sensibility that you just end up numb by the end)–and still leaves space for the final spike after the tale is done. That final spike, much like the classic Henry James story Turn of the Screw, happens when the implications of everything that’s gone on fully click in your head.

That’s what stays with you. That’s what changes your overall perception of the world. That’s what brings into question the very nature of “safe” reality.

The Verdict

If you like slowly building stories, solid but subtle performances, and endings of questionable happiness, then you should definitely check this out.

This film is also notable in that it’s Radcliffe’s first “grown-up” post-Potter role in a film. (He’d done a very well-received run on stage in Equus.) It shows off his true acting chops and lets him slough off the whole “child star only known for one role” stigma quite well.

All of the other performances are solid, too. The quiet terror among the villagers. The anguish and anger from the ghost. All of that comes through true and believable. The special effects, both subtle and blatant, add to the atmosphere and never get in the way by distracting from the scene. (Far too often, especially in horror, you have the “oh! look at the monster!” moment that places the technology and spectacle before the plot… I consider that a big problem, especially in a film like this.)

Even if you’re not generally a fan of horror films, you should give this one a go. It’s not grotesque or bloody, but, trust me, the horror is real.

Of course, if you’re a fan of gore-based horror films… or need a bunch of bloody action… then this film will bore you to tears.

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