Sometimes there’s nothing much better than a good, old-fashioned ghost story. Now when I say old-fashioned, I mean a scary yarn that is frightening more because of some things you don’t see rather than graphic displays of violence, blood, guts, gore, and disturbingly disgusting dismemberments. The kind of story I’m talking about also is not set in a barbaric basement where people can come in and pay a fee to butcher their fellow human beings. No, I mean a tale where much of the action occurs in Victorian England inside a desolate and creepy mansion surrounded by baron marshlands.
If this sounds appealing, then don’t miss “The Woman in Black,” a classy chiller based upon the 1983 novel of the same name by Susan Hill. Although you won’t find the likes of Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers slashing their way through victims left and right in this film, the mysterious woman who patrols the grounds of the aforementioned mansion does not need gloves with razor-sharp knives protruding from the fingers, a machete, or a kitchen knife to render her a terrifying angel of death. All she needs is a black dress with a matching hat.
Daniel Radcliffe was just 12 years old when he made the first of the eight Harry Potter movies that would launch him to stardom, but now he’s all grown up for his excellent portrayal of Arthur Kipps in “The Woman in Black.” Arthur is a young British solicitor who still is grieving over his wife’s death during the birth of their son four years ago, and his sorrow has had a disastrous impact on his career. In fact, if he doesn’t succeed in his next case, he probably will be dismissed from his firm.
Arthur’s assignment takes him to the rustic village of Crythin Gifford to go through the papers and settle the estate of the late Mrs. Drablow. When Arthur arrives in the little town, he finds the local denizens considerably less than hospitable, and he decides to do his work at Eel Marsh House, the drab mansion where Mrs. Drablow lived.
Eel Marsh House is surrounded by marshlands, and when the tide comes in, water completely engulfs the roads making an approach to or a departure from the house impossible. As if the house’s virtual isolation isn’t bad enough, Arthur suddenly begins hearing strange noises from time to time. Then there’s that empty rocking chair that moves by itself. And just who is the mysterious woman in black that appears and disappears in different places on the grounds of the house?
As Arthur learns more about the village and its people, he discovers that Mrs. Drablow had a son who drowned in the marshes, and her spirit continues to search for him. Legend also has it that whenever the woman in black appears, a child dies. And Arthur’s young son is coming to join him in only a few days.
Fans of modern gore fests like the “Saw” and “Hostel” films probably will find “The Woman in Black” a bit too tame for their tastes, but it is a classically eerie movie in the tradition of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” From its ominous beginning that involves the tragedy of three little girls to its surprise ending, this film is a masterful psychological thriller.
As it does in all effective horror movies, the suspense builds slowly but steadily until it becomes unbearable. When Arthur first arrives at Eel Marsh House, he really doesn’t pay much attention to creaking sounds in the old place, but when the noises escalate to human cries, he becomes understandably unnerved.
Because of the film’s nature, it doesn’t contain a lot of dialogue, and this makes it extremely effective. One of the local landowners (Ciaran Hinds) offers to drive Arthur to and from Eel Marsh House, and they say very little to each other during these trips, but the desolate scenery speaks volumes by emphasizing the ominously drab countryside.
This is not to say, however, that Radcliffe fails to excel in his performance. He is, in fact, outstanding because he is constantly reacting to what is happening around him, and because no else (human) is in the house with him, he must let his eyes and facial expressions convey his various emotional states. He is so good at this that not a moment in the film passes when we are not completely aware of his thoughts and feelings. Yes, the boy wizard is gone, and it’s time to welcome a mature actor in his place. In the film’s production notes, Radcliffe explained that he is ready to move on in his career and offered some insight into the character of Arthur.
“I’m very, very proud of Potter. But I now have to prove to people that I’m serious about acting, and I think the way to do that is to select interesting material. This fit that bill — it was a great script and a great story – unsettling and frightening.
“Arthur is so complex but there’s a real stillness to him as well. He’s a very interesting character to get a chance to play. Here’s this guy who’s lost his wife, goes to this house and starts seeing the ghost of a dead woman. I think the reason he stays there is out of some hidden desire, or instinct, to get some sort of assurance that his wife is in a better place. He was so completely destroyed by his wife’s death that he has found it almost impossible to live in the human world for the last four years. Arthur’s been unable to connect with people, particularly his son. He loves him, but he hasn’t been there for him as he should have been. He’s not been able to give him a happy childhood because he doesn’t have that capacity for happiness.”
One doesn’t often think of inanimate objects as playing a part in a film, but Eel Marsh House definitely is a major character in the movie. From the time you first lay eyes on this place you feel as if it has a life of its own, and if a haunted house can be a thing of beauty, this is it. The overgrown and weed-infested grounds surrounding the mansion’s imposingly stark exterior are a mere prelude to the gothic furnishings and paintings bedecked with spider webs that adorn the inside. Each room in the house has a personality of its own, and there is no way in hell I would exist more than 30 seconds alone in the place. In fact, I think I would rather spend the night in Norman Bates’ house than wander around in Eel Marsh House during the daylight hours.
“The Woman in Black” (Give it a final score of eight.) is a testament to fact that a movie doesn’t need to be filled with gallons of fake blood to be frightening. You can have your Freddys, Jasons, and Michaels. After you have paid a visit to Eel Marsh House, you’ll forget all about them.