Talking Movies

February 8, 2012

The Woman in Black

Director James Watkins abundantly fulfils the promise he showed with 2008’s Eden Lake by unleashing a terrifying film that establishes him as a true master of horror.

Daniel Radcliffe is back in the realms of the supernatural, but this time he has no magical powers with which to fight evil… Watkins’ Eden Lake was a social horror in which chavs terrorised a yuppie couple, but his follow-up is a classical haunted house story set in the early 1920s. The film unnerves from the prologue where three young children commit suicide at the behest of the titular ghost. Radcliffe’s struggling London lawyer has lost his wife in childbirth, and is sent to the Norfolk broads on sufferance that if he doesn’t clear up the nightmarish paperwork concerning Eel Marsh House he will lose his job. The unwelcoming villagers try to convince him not to stay, and the ‘incompetent’ local solicitor thrusts documents in his hands; begging him not to visit the house. Driven by duty Radcliffe ignores them…

Sam, a wonderful Ciaran Hinds as the friendly local toff, is contemptuous of the villagers’ superstitions but in this acutely observed 1920s the huge numbers of War dead has created a hunger for communication with the gone thru mediums. It quickly becomes clear that any sighting of the Woman leads to a child’s death. And Radcliffe has a child… Eel Marsh House, situated on a mountainous rise in the Broads with a road washed away by tides twice daily, is a tremendously eerie location. Inside, courtesy of the world’s creepiest toy shop, the dimly-lit house is primed for scares. Classy horror might best be described as a concentrating on dread to create terror rather than on gore to elicit horror. This is the best ‘classy horror’ film I’ve seen since 2008’s The Orphanage, because a maestro is conducting.

Watkins disdains the ‘ha, made you jump!’ scares that blighted Black Swan. Instead he delivers three amazing releases of tension in innocuous but sharp surprises at the house, before a slightly unnerved Radcliffe returns to the village only to encounter a true horror. It is when he returns to Eel Marsh House and informs Hinds of his intention to work thru the night and get shot of the paperwork in one go that things become terrifying. Hitchcock defined suspense as the pleasurable/tense wait for something you knew was going to happen, and Watkins delivers multiple bravura sequences of truly terrifying attendance on the arrival of malevolent spirits. Jane Goldman’s lean adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel creates an escalating feeling of sheer dread and the ending defeats the cliché you may be expecting. That’s if you don’t bolt, screaming, before the end…

Eden Lake was a dazzling technical achievement but it was hard to recommend. The Woman in Black, while almost unbearable for the nervously disposed, cannot be recommended enough. 

5/5

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