Monday, 13 February 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Woman in Black

Waiting for The Woman in Black to start on Saturday night I was quite excited, as I've been looking forward to this one for aaaages (number 2 on my top films of 2012, you'll remember). And with the BBFC deciding to pansy to the Potter crowd, the film's rating had been reduced from a 15 to a 12A, negating some of the terror. I'd been verbally cross about this, as I didn't want what is billed as "the most terrifying ghost story of all time" dumbed down so tweens could come in to look at Daniel Radcliffe being a grown up. But at least with a 12A you know it's not going to be very scary, and you don't have that excitement mixed with dread before the film starts - just pure anticipation of enjoying some jumpy moments and a well told story with bundles of eerie atmosphere along the way.

WELL LET ME TELL YOU RIGHT THERE THAT I WOULD BE WRONG. WRONG. The Woman in Black is probably the most unsparingly petrifying film I have seen in a long, long time - probably since Paranormal Activity - and is definitely not a 12A rating. Children should not be watching this! Hell, even some adults couldn't cope (hands up). God even that picture above freaks me the hell out.

Based on the novella by Susan Hill, Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is a young widow, tasked by his law firm to travel to the East Coast of England to settle the affairs of a recently deceased woman, Alice Drablow. Leaving his young son with the nanny, he plans to get the paperwork sorted and then have the two of them come up to join him for a weekend break in the countryside. But as soon as he arrives in the village he finds he is unwelcome. The local inn is fully booked up and he has to be housed in the attic; the local solicitor hands him the paperwork quickly advising him to just go back to London; the children of the village are ushered indoors and away from him. Oblivious to their distress, Arthur goes to Eel Marsh House, where Alice lived, to carry out his own investigations. The house is cut off from the village by a causeway, the tides sealing it off from the rest of the world. Whilst he is there he sees the figure of a woman dressed in black from the window, and when he goes to find her hears the sounds of a carriage accident and people screaming. When he returns to the village, one of the young girls is poisoned and dies. Confiding in his only friend Sam (Ciaran Hinds) and his wife Elizabeth (Janet McTeer) - who have also lost a child - and by spending more time at the house, Arthur learns about Alice's sister Jennet, who had a son called Nathaniel. Jennet was deemed unfit to be a mother by her sister, and Alice and her husband adopted the boy as their own, with Jennet denied visiting privileges. When he was 7, there was an accident on the causeway and the carriage carrying Nathaniel, Alice and her husband was sunk by marshland. Nathaniel died, his body never found. In a series of angry letters to Alice, Jennet says she will never forgive her for letting him die. She is found hanged in the nursery of Eel Marsh House. As Arthur spends more time at the house and sees the woman on numerous occasions, more children die in the village and a frightening connection is made. Whenever the woman is seen, a child dies. Arthur, terrified for the safety of his own son who is coming to stay, decides to try and reunite Jennet and her dead son in the hope this will finally bring the spirit peace.

I'll be good and not spoil the ending, as it adds to the whole chilling experience. Go, be chilled.

I would just like to point out that if you're driven to the middle of nowhere, from a village full of reclusive people, to this house:


In fact there are a number of occasions here - yes, yes, all part of the story I know - where Arthur should have just stopped what he was doing and asked some straightforward questions. Everyone is ushering him away and exchanging nervous looks when he mentions why he is here, and yet he blindly goes about his business anyway without stopping to think "hang on, this seems a bit suspicious". But there is part of him - still mourning for his dead wife - that wants to believe in a spiritual presence, and that's what I believe keeps him going back to that house. More than driving him away the superstitions ignite a curiosity, and a desperate belief the dead are not gone for good. But not all spirits are harmless and they certainly cannot be 'tamed' by human morals.

I haven't read the book and I haven't seen the play, so I went into this knowing very little of the story at all. From guesswork it seems obvious the recently deceased woman, Alice, is the one haunting the house and that's all it is - a simple haunted house story. But no, it's far more unsettling than that, and once you have the back story of Jennet and the child's death and you understand what the Woman in Black is doing - what her vengeance is, it strikes the fear of God into you. There is more to this terrifying spectre than rocking chairs, and locking doors, and creaking floorboards. She watches you. She preys on what you love the most: your children. She appears to them - at any time and any place - and convinces them to do the most horrific things: jump out of a window, walk into the sea, set fire to the house. Just as she lost her own born, she wants others to suffer the same. Once you've seen her, there's no stopping her. One of the most frightening scenes of the film is when Arthur tries to rescue the solicitor's daughter from the house engulfed in flames, but when he finds her she is calm and stony faced, and holding a lantern above her head ready to burn in the flames. The Woman in Black stands in the corner, watching him.

I'd actually read many comments before watching the film that the film is a lot scarier when she isn't on the screen. I would like to refute that claim right here: it's all the more terrifying when she is on the screen. There are lots of jumpy moments that turn out to be false alarms, or tricks of the light, but when we actually get a glimpse of the ghost that's when my heart flipped 360 degrees. There's a rocking chair moment and a window moment - that's all I'm saying. But by far the worst - the very, very worst - is at the end, when Arthur has pulled the dead body of Nathaniel out of the marsh, brought it to the nursery and is waiting for The Woman in Black to appear so she can reclaim her son. It makes me shudder and want to climb under my bed just thinking about that whole sequence - which, can you believe, was one of the scenes edited by the BBFC to be 'less scary'. Arthur paces back and forth in the nursery, waiting for her to appear. Then all the lights go out and he peers around the doorframe, and she's stood there, at the other end of the corridor. Nnnnneurghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! *wrings hands*

Daniel Radcliffe is great, and more than holds his own in a film it would be easy to feel swamped by, such is the excellent cinematography (filmed in Yorkshire, Peterborough and Essex) and the deeply sinister, foreboding atmosphere. He's perfectly believable as a young man and father, who has lost everything that matters to him, suddenly drawn into this terrifying curse. Janet McTeer is excellent too, as the seemingly nutcase mother who treats her dogs as newborn babies but in reality is the wisest out of the lot of them. The ending is different from the book and aims to offer some hope, but don't expect anything sealed with a bow. I'll tell you what, Arthur could have have learnt a thing or two from the Winchester brothers: all you need is a match.

I've had two nights of sleep since The Woman in Black now and I've yet to not wake up in the dark and start fretting that she's stood somewhere in the room. Such is the power of James Watkins' direction and Jane Goldman's script that I can't get the blasted film out of my head. Creepy, and latching onto a base fear we all harbour deep within, if you're not too afraid to open your eyes in the dead of night after watching this then I envy you a great deal. Pure and utter dread.

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