You guys might have heard, I like horror movies. I mean, I really like horror movies. I like slasher films and monster movies and stories about people possessed by the devil. But most of all, I like haunted house movies. For some reason, the haunted house genre really gets under my skin and creeps me out in ways that no other genre can. It’s not that I actually believe in ghosts – quite the contrary, actually. I think part of why I’m so drawn to these stories is that I don’t believe but I really, really wish I did. The Haunting and The Others remain high on list of movies that scare the shit out of me, and I will watch House on Haunted Hill every single time I flip past it playing on FX. This is why I wanted to see The Woman in Black.
What we have here is a fairly trite story: Arthur (played by Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe) has recently lost his wife and is raising a child alone. A lawyer, he is sent to settle the estate of a deceased widow in the marshes of Northern England. Everyone in the town seems to be pushing him away, but nevertheless he investigates the house where the widow died. Blah blah, weird shit happens, there are ghosts, children start dying. You get the general gist.
This is a classic gothic horror piece, both in story, tone and setting. Taking place in turn-of-the-century England, the movie has a real feel for everything that was creepy about that time; the sets are filled with strange knickknacks and trophies, clockwork toys and creaky wooden furniture. And all of this contributes to the genius of The Woman in White: it accomplishes mood like no horror movie I’ve seen in a very, very long time. But it doesn’t rely solely on that mood for its scares.
Usually I have a deep disdain for what I like to call William Castle scares – a moment in a horror movie where, a quick cut and a loud sound effect are used to startle the audience for a cheap thrill. But the Castle scares in The Woman in White are so brilliantly accomplished and genuinely scary that I actually started to look forward to them as the movie went on.
The reason this movie is so scary – and make no mistake, it is very, very scary – is the perfect balance of atmosphere and jump-out scares. A long, slow-burn scene of immense tension is capped off with a quick, loud shock in a way that made me, a veteran of horror movies who it is very difficult to scare, jump clear out of my seat over and over again.
I have a hard time deciding if I think Daniel Radcliffe is a good actor or not. He is consistently given top-notch material, and he always performs it admirably. Here he is largely brooding and sad-looking, but he adds enough small changes in color to keep the performance from becoming a one-note mess. He also largely carries this entire movie on his shoulders. There are some supporting roles that add greatly to the story – notably Ciaran Hinds as the town’s wealthiest man and main skeptic – but the vast majority of the movie is Radcliffe’s.
I don’t want to give you the impression that this is a perfect movie: it isn’t. The ending has some pretty deep flaws in the The Ring tradition and the climactic confrontation between Radcliffe and the angry specter is pretty lame. But if you’re looking for a movie that will creep you out and make you crap your pants periodically – which is, indeed, a rare breed in this day and age – you couldn’t do better than this. It’s spooky, it’s scary, it has a decent heart and good performances, and absolutely spectacular art direction. Seriously, The Woman in Black is a set decorator’s wet dream, and the ghosts, the house and the town are really beautifully designed. And let’s face it, if you’re coming off of a franchise as absurdly successful as Harry Potter, this is the way to establish yourself as an actor rather than a character; Radcliffe plays strongly against type here, and pulls it off well.
Bottom line: if you like being scared, see this movie immediately. It will lose something on the small screen, and it is well worth the ten bucks you will pay for it. And please understand, a horror movie that is worth seeing in theaters is a rare beast indeed, and I think anyone who is a fan of the macabre should shell out their money to support this kind of effort.