A young lawyer travels to a remote village to conduct an inventory of a deceased client’s possessions. He gradually realises that the dead client is connected to a sinister spectral woman – the sight of whom preludes the death of a child - that is terrorizing the local population.
The Woman in Black is an exercise in slow burning horror, and the narrative unfolds with a degree of odiousness and suggestion appropriate for such a traditional ghost tale. From the outset, grief is the overarching theme that binds the story together in this version of Susan Hill’s classic chiller. From the genuinely unsettling opening scene - depicting the suicide of three young girls as they leap from the window of their nursery, accompanied by the sound of their mother’s screaming – to the protagonist’s sustained anguish at the death of his wife; the notion of grief as an escapable snare hangs heavy over proceedings. The film unravels as a spooky and, for the most part, highly effective throwback to the gothic heydays of Hammer Horror. As this take is also obviously designed for the contemporary multiplex crowd, it is laced with jump moments, but they never seem contrived, and they enhance the ‘old school’ ghost-ride feel. Whereas the original film elicited icy spine-chilliness by revealing the eponymous character in open spaces during daylight hours (the juxtaposition of which proving incredibly effective), Watkins' take relegates her firmly to the shadows for the most part; we catch brief, corner-of-the-eye glimpses of her here and there, usually through fairly subtle use of CGI, which isn’t as tacky as it sounds. She’s usually reflected in or appears outside of a window, or seen lingering on the periphery of the screen.
For the most part Jane Goldman’s screenplay sticks closely to the source material, and indeed the original adaptation, however much less time is spent on the story before it moves into the creepy confines of the house. That said, the plot which unfolds in this update is much more detailed and throws up frequent surprises for those already familiar with the story. It arguably even develops certain aspects of the original such as the sinister connection of the titular woman to the deaths of children in the local area. Beginning with quiet moodiness and gradually cranking up the tension, The Woman in Black eventually hurtles towards its climax as a race against time ensues to try and break the curse that enshrouds the house and its surrounding land. A major departure that helps to build suspense occurs when Arthur wades out into the marsh to retrieve a body in an effort to provide peace for a tortured soul. This scene exudes a claustrophobic immediacy and provides some powerful imagery.
Due to the generous budget, Watkins is able to effectively convey the isolation of Eel Marsh house with expansive shots of the causeway that leads to it. The house itself appears as a throwback to prior Hammer abodes, perched atop a craggy island and engulfed by mist. Whereas the house in Herbert Wise’s Nigel Kneale-scripted version was a much less gothic locale due to its modernist use of electricity, enhancing it with a unique atmosphere all of its own; the house in Watkins’ film is somewhere the Prince of Darkness himself wouldn’t seem out of place.
As Arthur Kipps, Daniel Radcliffe has to carry the film, and he does an admirable job. Due to his character’s circumstances he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and Radcliffe aptly conveys Kipps’ sense of loss and sadness before his life is thrown into turmoil by the creepy encounters in the story and he’s terrified almost to the brink of insanity. While the bittersweet ending is a much ‘happier’ one than the original, it works perfectly well within the context of this particular adaptation and its overt melancholy romanticism; however it also highlights just how shocking, and daring, the ending of the 1989 version is. The Woman in Black offers a refreshing throwback to gothic chillers of yore for those who have grown tired of, well, whatever current horror fad stalks the local multiplex. Like many great ghost tales, it provides not only chills and thrills, but something of an emotional impact, too.