As much as I dislike horror movies, I can’t object to an old-fashioned fright, and there are plenty of seat-jumping moments in this throwback to the good old days of scary movies. There is nary a drop of blood spilled in this, not to mention the merciful overall lack of gore. This is one of those movies that plays with your mind instead of grossing you out. Every time a door creaks open or a candle blows out it telegraphs what is to follow, giving you just enough time to steel yourself before something jumps out — in good old 2-D.
Daniel Radcliffe, having finally put Harry Potter to rest, plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer circa the late 1800s who loses his wife when she dies giving birth to their son. His despair is so overwhelming he’s on the verge of losing his job unless he can satisfy his latest assignment to visit a remote village and collect the papers of a recently deceased owner of a large estate. Sounds easy enough, but our first clue otherwise is the unwillingness of the local inn’s owner to board Arthur.
From the moment he arrives, the townspeople look at him like he has two heads as they scurry away, rush their children inside and bolt the doors. His only friend is a local gentry man named Daily (Ciarin Hinds), whose wife Elizabeth (Janet McTeer) has never quite gotten over the death of their young son years ago.
It doesn’t take long for Arthur to figure out that a lot of young sons and daughters have met unpleasant ends in this small town. No one wants to talk about it, but suffice to say if someone happens to spy the lady in black, something unfortunate always follows.
At decrepit Eel Manor (what a name for a house), Arthur encounters disturbing events of the supernatural kind. There are loud thumps upstairs, toys that suddenly come to life, slamming doors, fleeting glimpses of moldering folk — the usual stuff that ratchets up the tension. He bravely lights an oil lamp and trudges on, but I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in that creepy place.
Take from the 1983 novel by Susan Hill and adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman, the story really is a simple, uncomplicated haunting by a woman who was scorned many years before. Apparently it’s quite popular in Britain, having spawned a comic book and a long-running play. Director James Watkins keeps the special effect simple, too. The look of things is bleak and washed out with what appears to be an intent to replicate the look of some old horror films, pre-CGI.
The most obvious nod is seen every time Arthur and Mr. Daily hop into his newfangled driving machine. The scenery whizzes by with the wind rustling through the roadside trees, yet both gentlemen remain perfectly coiffed, the dark outline of their heads the giveaway that they are being filmed “in studio” against a screen. It’s really old school, and in a way, fitting for the film.
For Radcliffe, this is a real departure and it’s nice to see him sans the Potter trappings of owlish eyeglasses and magic wand. Fresh off a run in the hit Broadway revival of “How to Succeed in Business,” he seems determined to leave J.K. Rowling’s beloved character behind after 10 years, even though this film is no great challenge to his acting skills.
It’s a conversation with Mr. Daily that provides a clue to Arthur’s impressive nerve — he actually doesn’t believe in ghosts — not yet, anyway. Just give him a little more time with “The Woman in Black,” and he’ll be a believer.