Alas, the glory days of Hammer Horror were over. The studio went into hibernation, resurfacing briefly during the 1980s for a brief but memorable television series - The Hammer House of Horror - as well as a largely forgettable sequel run, The Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984). Whilst rumours would always surface regarding various projects and affiliations, Hammer Studios lay dormant for almost twenty years. In 2007, Hammer were purchased by Dutch producer John De Mol, who announced plans to restart the studio. In 2010, the newly renamed Hammer Film Productions had their first major success of the new era with the release of Let Me In, a remake of the 2008 Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In.
The Woman In Black, based on the seminal 1983 gothic horror novel of the same name, is the most recent offering from the revived Hammer Film Productions. The film sees Daniel Radcliffe - he, the former and forever star of the Harry Potter series - in the role of Arthur Kipps, a recently bereaved father of one, working as a lawyer for a London firm who travels to a distant village to settle an old account, a stately manor known as Eel Marsh House. Early on the film, he is befriended by the magnanimous Mr. Daily, played by Ciaran Hinds, who provides practical help and words of wisdom for young Mr. Kipps throughout. Arriving at the village, Kipps is shunned by the townsfolk who seem suspicious and guarded, especially around their children - and a sinister air begins to prevail even more as Kipps travels to Eel Marsh House, hoping to work through the night and complete his task. Discovering more and more of the horrifying secrets of Eel Marsh House and the reason for the villagers mistrust, Kipps soon comes face to face with the spectre that haunts the village of Crythin Gifford...
Typically, I'm not easy to scare. After seeing the trailer, and having watched a million and one of these kinds of films, I figured, this should be easy enough to predict: a few jumps here and there, I'll see those coming a mile away, I thought. Daniel Radcliffe's not bad at all, but I'll probably be laughing about this one all the way home; whilst my lady friend here won't quite get my uncanny ability to unsynchronise myself from the process of suspension of disbelief. However, despite my own unfair preconceptions, The Woman in Black is actually rather good; in many senses, a rollercoaster ride, a haunted house at the theme park if you will - but it does it so well, finding its feet as a sort of British-flavoured Ju-On: The Grudge, down-at-heel throughout and given a distinctly Victorian makeover, without ever succumbing to the ennui of most British period pieces.
Directed by James Watkins (Eden Lake) with a screenplay from Jane Goldman (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass), the film cleverly focuses on atmosphere and ambience instead the abundance of now-clichéd obsession with gore and over-the-top viscera, preferred so contemporarily; with a down-at-heel sense of foreboding that perhaps only the British could manage, and some old-fashioned well-timed shocks that - with the lights off and all alone - got me every time, even on a second viewing. I knew I was being tricked, and I might be jaded, but timing and tone are everything; The Woman In Black exploits them both in spades, with some great camera action and the use of a menacing, shrill soundtrack throughout. The viewer is almost always placed in the best (also: worst) place to experience the full impact of every skipped heartbeat, every sudden sinister reflection, every inexplicable shudder and shake. We're often placed into the field of vision of not only Kipps but also his malevolent, ghostly nemesis - often there, just out of sight, invisible or unseen. For those watching, it generates the entirely unnerving feeling that one is not only watching someone else being stalked - but also being stalked themselves.
The story is intriguing enough - generations of villagers damned by a vengeful spirit - but is really just window-dressing for the lurid, sparse horridness that is only ever a few moments away. Through the interaction of Kipps and Daily in particular, the film's background themes of loss, death and the afterlife are explored in superficial depth, yet provide heart and soul to the characters, giving the audience a reason to care about them. It just works.
There was some critical skepticism about the casting of Radcliffe as a father, a man who must be in his 20s or 30s in story, but this kind of role is actually perfect for him - his vulnerability and ability to express fear and peril is the key that winds the spooky old grandfather clock, and he pulls it off well by simply reacting to that which occurs around him; the films keen direction and production integrate his capable performance and leave us to concentrate on enjoy being scared to bits, which is what we all want anyway.
The film was a surprise smash-hit at cinemas - the biggest grossing British horror film for almost 20 years, in fact - making nearly £72 million worldwide already, with a recently-announced sequel on the way entitled The Woman in Black: The Angels of Death. There's no question about it, it's the kind of film that's great at home with the lights out dark and the volume up loud - there's no other way to experience it. Give yourself a chance to be entertained and you almost certainly will.
The Woman in Black is due to be released on blu-ray, DVD and for download on June 18th. Extras include: 'Inside the Perfect Thriller: Making the Woman in Black'; 'No Fear: Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps'; Interviews with James Watkins, Jane Goldman and Daniel Radcliffe; The Woman in Black Red Carpet Special; theatrical trailer, galleries and storyboards.