Film Review: The Woman in Black (2012)

At this point, I'm considering that TYCP project a wash. They have a big old stack of reviews from me and haven't posted one since Haywire came out. Since I'm overwhelmed with music work on this, the week where the show I've been working on has its entire run, I'm posting some of those reviews. What is the measure of a good horror film? Do we overlook poorly defined narratives and dull characters in the face of disturbing and unpredictable scare sequences? Do we accept jumps and screams in the theater as success above all else? Or do we need something more, something concrete, to grasp onto?

The Woman in BlackThe Woman in Black hedges on the side of scares trumping substance. Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a widower and single father about to lose his job if he does not sort through the paperwork of a recently deceased client by the weekend. Unfortunately, the house is haunted by a vengeful spirit. Jump scares ensue.

As simplistic as it sounds, that is the extent of plot or character development in The Woman in Black. Screenwriter Jane Goldman, adapting the novel of the same name by Susan Hill, does not strive for nuance or depth. She aims for scares. Once the haunting goes off and the true danger of the spirit is unleashed, the film is scary. Goldman's singular goal is a lengthy unending nightmare in the second half of the film and it's effective.

Unfortunately, director James Watkins does not run with Goldman's pacing at all. He drags out the first forty minutes of the film in a dull dirge of gray filters that do not endear the audience to the film. Gags meant to turn the audience on edge are met with laughter because they come across as absurdities. When a film is paced like a character study but lacks any evolution of theme, story, or persona, it becomes a chore to sit through.

PosterThe challenge of The Woman in Black is one of context that does not excuse the errors of the finished project. British horror cinema in the 1970s was dominated by two competing production companies: Hammer and Amicus. Amicus rose to fame with quiet and subversive anthology horror films, giving the audience a wide spectrum of scares in an effort to appeal to everyone. Hammer, on the other hand, went full throttle with horror filmmaking. Once the story was put into motion, the scares did not stop. The characters evolved only by the will of the actors and the audience did not get relief until the lights came up in the theater.

What The Woman in Black attempts to do is combine these two styles into one feature. A deft hand would be required to balance the subtlety of Amicus with the brashness of Hammer. Unfortunately, James Watkins was not the director to manage that feat. He excels at the Hammer style of unyielding terror once Arthur Kipps opts to spend the night in the haunted house. He falls flat in tone and style in trying to build the story like an Amicus cozy.

The result is a film that will play better with liberal use of the fast forward button to get to the second half of the film. The Woman in Black does one remarkable thing: it manages to dig itself out of a terribly deep hole of ineptitude to generate some real momentum and horror bravado in its final scenes. Had the whole picture opted for unpredictable turns in expectations, it would be a masterpiece. Instead, we're left with half a good film that some people won't have the patience to make it to on DVD.

Rating: 4/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

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