Hammer Horror Time Daniel Radcliffe Goes Gothic

City Pulse | January 30, 2012
"The Woman in Black" is a minor key gothic spooky that feels like visiting with a long-lost friend thanks to its renowned Hammer films pedigree. The nightmarish movie, based on Susan Hill's 1983 ghost story, has the auspicious honor of being the first England-made Hammer picture in 35 years. The delightfully creepy haunted house drama doesn't boast the cleavage-bearing temptations or tongue-in-cheek camp of celebrated Hammer films like the 1969 classic "Taste the Blood of Dracula." Instead, "The Woman in Black" delivers plenty of gasp-inducing chills in a moody setting where its child characters are more likely to parish than to survive. The simultaneous demise of three young sisters at the start of the movie initiates the viewer into the story’s macabre landscape where horrors pop.

Transitioning out of his many years with the Harry Potter franchise, Daniel Radcliffe is well-if-not-perfectly cast as Arthur Kipps, a widowed solicitor living in Victorian era England. The loss of his wife during childbirth has left the heavy-hearted Kipps living as a single parent to his four-year-old son Joseph (Misha Handley). Under threat of losing his job due to his bereaved demeanor, Kipps is sent to the east coast village of Crythin Gifford to finalize legal paperwork pertaining to one Alice Drablow, a recently deceased widow with a history of tragedy. The widow's predictably tumbledown home is a cursed mansion named Eel Marsh House. The eerie dwelling harbors more than its share of ghosts. The dauntingly remote property is located at the end of a long causeway. When the tide comes in, the sprawling residence transforms into an island cut off from the mainland. Naturally, Kipps must spend a night in the haunted palace where ghoulish faces appear and things go bump. A unique collection of wind-up children’s toys brings a clatter of reanimated weirdness in a room where a rocking chair is home to a female ghost with a proclivity for wearing black.

The filmmakers have a field day with brooding visual shocks accompanied by loud jarring noises. Ghastly demonic faces are deployed with disturbing accuracy. There were at least a couple of screams from members of the critic-filled screening I attended. Kave Quinn’s meticulous production design squares subtly with Paul Ghirardani’s precise art direction to bring every composition brimming with tasteful treats of lurking wickedness. Very little blood is spilled, but when it effuses from a sick child’s mouth the thick red liquid makes a palpable impression. An ominous crucifix protrudes from the marsh alongside the road. It just wouldn’t be a proper Hammer film without at least one looming crucifix. The foreboding object enables one of the pictures most suspenseful sequences. Kipps and his only friend in town, Dally (Ciaran Hinds), do some marsh dredging that furnishes the screen with an especially dark revelation.

“The Woman in Black” possesses a purity of purpose. Its goal is to seduce the audience into a supernatural realm of somnambulist existence with the power of suggestion. It’s an idyllic horror film to reboot a highly regarded horror studio renowned for depriving young audiences of their sleep. Nightmares will follow, perhaps even for the not so young.

Rated PG-13. 94 mins. (B) (Three Stars – out of five/no halves)

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