Sunday, February 12, 2012

Back in Black

I've been holding off when it comes to writing about the new version of The Woman in Black (2011, directed by James Watkins). It's the kind of movie where, when I was in the moment of watching it, it was profoundly terrifying. When I was not in the moment, would it still resound in my mind? The best horror movies linger in the memory. The original BBC version of this story was such a movie; it gave me bad dreams for weeks after I saw it. Is it an unfair standard, this insistence that horror movies continue to disturb you after the screen fades to black? I don't think it is. I can think of several horror movies that did exactly that. A personal example: my mother would never take a shower if she was in the house alone. Psycho did that to her. Jaws kept people off the beaches for months during 1975. I sometimes pose this question to people who don't understand my indifference to the Nightmare on Elm Street movies: what's more frightening, some dream demon in a bad sweater and a drawer full of steak knives on his fingers or the notion that your gynecologist is whacked out of his mind on drugs, designing his own medical instruments, and using them on patients? I know what my answer is. And yet, there's something to be said for a scare machine, for movies that want to do nothing more than jump out and say "boo!" There are even legitimately great horror movies that do exactly that. Halloween is one of them. So is Carrie. I don't know yet if The Woman in Black is a great horror movie. It's much too soon to make that kind of judgement. But it IS a pretty great scare machine, though, and it even has a jump scare that's as cunningly executed as the dream sequence at the end of Carrie. And that, my friends, is high praise. I had a grand time watching it.

As I say, this isn't the first adaptation of Susan Hill's novel. The BBC did a version back in the 1980s that gave me occasional nightmares months after I saw it in 1995. The BBC is good at this sort of thing, having produced memorable shudders as long ago as Nigel Kneale's original Quatermass series and The Stone Tape and as recently as Dead Set. Their version of The Woman in Black plays like an episode of Masterpiece Theater on a bad acid trip and it works in spite of sometimes dodgy production values. The new version is largely the same story, filmed with more contemporary special effects and a much more lavish production design.

The story follows one Arthur Kipps, a solicitor charged with discharging the estate papers at Eel Marsh House. The house is a bleak ruin of a thing on a promontory in a tidal marsh. During high tide, it's inaccessible. Kipps is in desperate straits. His wife died in childbirth and the loss has affected his work. Botch this job, and he's looking for a new situation. So off he goes. Things don't go to plan. The villagers in flyspeck town of Crythin Gifford are hostile from the get go. Eel Marsh House is haunted by a mysterious woman, and every time she's seen, a child in the village dies. Kipps only ally is the wealthy Mr. Daily, who has also lost a son, but who refuses to believe in the supernatural. His wife is another matter. She claims to be in contact with their dead son, who imparts dire warnings to Kipps. Then there is the house itself, a wrecked mansion stacked with ominous papers and decaying toys. Kipps sees the woman in black himself on his first trip to the house, and sure enough, he's confronted with a dead child once he returns to town. On his second trip, he stays the night, and finds himself terrorized by the woman in black and her entourage of child ghosts. Kipps starts to piece together the history of the woman in black, and on his third trip to the house, he attempts to exorcise her restless spirit. But that doesn't go quite to plan...

This is a classical ghost story, and it's festooned with the paraphernalia of such tales: the crumbling old house, the hostile villagers, the dark history that slowly reveals itself. The classical ghost story is formalized, and most of the elements of the form are highly ritualized. The Woman in Black plays by these rules for most of its length, and it executes all of these tropes with a merciless precision. The filmmakers know that haunted house stories live or die by the mood that they generate, and they expend a great deal of their filmmaking capital making sure the mood of their film is positively oppressive. This is one of the gloomiest horror movies of recent vintage. This movie makes great use of objects, particularly toys, which it invests with a kind of malevolent gaze all their own, independent of the ghosts. It understands the implicit horror of abandoned toys, and puts their implication right at the front of the movie in a languid scene where three sisters abandon their toys to throw themselves out of a window. The movie is clever, too, in the ways in which it offers glimpses of its ghost. Sometimes, she's on screen when you don't even notice. Watch the mirrors in the corners of the frame. She's sometimes there. She's sometimes a shadow that looks innocent at first. This film is often a film about perception, and the film's best scary moment benefits from this in the same way Jaws benefited from its association of the shark with the film's score when it broke that compact with the audience.

The movie deviates from the classical ghost story toward the end when it suggests that whatever measures its hero takes to ameliorate the woman in black, it will never assuage her unquenchable malevolence, and this is its most unsettling insinuation. The sins of the past, it suggests, can never be expiated. Hatred is stronger than love. Ghosts cannot be defeated. The end of the film suggests a happy ending, but it's not one. It's a nihilistic ending, though it's also kind of an anticlimax. The fireworks display is at the center of the movie rather than at the end. While this might be a flaw, the central set piece is a pile driver, and a more brutal ending might be a bit much.

It's inescapable, I suppose, that this movie is going to be remembered as the first movie Daniel Radcliffe has made since graduating from the Harry Potter movies. Radcliffe has turned into a capable actor, and he certainly cuts a fine figure in the period costumes. It doesn't take very long to get over the cognitive disconnect of seeing Radcliffe as a widower. He's a bit young for the role, but he's not overly young, and the actor himself sells the part well enough. It's a smart part for him to take, too, in order to ease himself into other films, because it's not much of a stretch for him. The mopey Arthur Kipps doesn't present much of a difference from the emotional range of the late Potter films. And as with the Potter films, Radcliffe is surrounded by capable supporting actors, particularly Ciaran Hinds as Daily and Janet McTeer as the crazed Mrs. Daily.

A good deal of The Woman in Black reminds me of Asian ghost stories (and if you don't like Asian ghost stories, you probably won't like this film). In its broad outlines, the plot of The Woman in Black is very similar to the plot of The Ring, and its ghost is similarly implacable. The imagery is fairly similar, too, particularly a scene where a ghost pulls itself out of the ground where its body has been lost. In this regard, it's a modernist horror movie in spite of its period trappings. The novel was published well before the Asian horror boom, and the BBC version came out a decade earlier than The Ring, so discerning patterns of influence is probably a mug's game. There's also a fair sampling of the Night of the Living Dead scenario in which our hero is besieged in a remote location by the living dead. Still, this is a film that derives most of its power from traditional gothic elements. It's fitting that this should come from Hammer. It shouldn't have taken the new Hammer four movies to go back to their roots, but that's business, I guess.

As a postscript, by all means read the book. It's one of the best horror novels of the last half-century. It's in print and pretty easy to find.


Roscoe said...

When I saw Ealing's name attached to the first signifigant new John Landis film in years, I had very high expectations for "Burke & Hare". Sadly, I was disappointed by the end result, and I was wary of "The Woman in Black" with the Hammer label.

The BBC version you mentioned is this production (linked below)?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

That's the very one. Yes.

As for being disappointed by Ealing/Hammer. There's a significant difference between Ealing and Hammer. Ealing made masterpieces. Hammer, with a few very arguable exceptions, didn't. Of the films the new Hammer has made so far, half of them are better than any horror movie the old Hammer ever made, while one of the others, is a pretty good low budget film. Only The Resident really sucked, and even it didn't suck as bad as, say, The Hands of the Ripper or To the Devil, A Daughter. Obviously, this is a value judgement, but I'll happily stand by it. Don't get me wrong. I love old Hammer movies, but I'm clear-eyed about them.

But to each his own.

I didn't realize that someone had resurrected Ealing Studios. Interesting.

Chris Hewson said...

I haven't seen this yet, but I will soon, I think it's in theatres here in Australia now.

Also, I accidentally read the original movie's ending on wikipedia, and at first I thought it sounded hilarious, it sounded so abrupt and absurd, but then about a week ago, I looked up the original movie on youtube, watched the ending, and it isn't funny, it just seems silly. If I see a branch semi-slowly falling down onto my boat, I'd move to the side, and not just stay there. I guess it makes more sense once you've seen the entire movie?

J Luis Rivera said...

I have not read the book yet, but I'm a big fan of Mallatratt's play based on it.

I seriously can't wait to see this film. And your review just made me even more eager to watch it!