I challenged myself. “Self,” I told myself, “I’m going to get through a review of The Woman in Black without mentioning Hammer Films one single time.” I was prepared to approach it as if Hammer Films, the British studio once famous for grinding out gothic shockers based on Dracula and Frankenstein, never even existed at all. I would greet The Woman in Black on its own terms. And, as you can see, I have failed.
Because, even if the Hammer name wasn’t attached to the opening credits of the film, I probably would’ve mentioned Hammer anyway. Its influence on the picture is just too big. If you’ve seen a couple of Hammer films at all, I don’t think you can really avoid the comparison. Radcliffe even said as much in a recent interview with IndieWire, “I was aware that, had this film been made in a different time, Peter Cushing would have gotten that part.”
My first tip-off (besides all the British people) was the scene in which lawyer Arthur Kipps (played by the assuredly adult Daniel Radcliffe) arrives at a tavern. He’s turned down, not just for a room, but for any line of questioning at all concerning the spooky old Eel Marsh House. This may sound silly to the uninitiated, but you could almost set your watch to the appearance of a tavern in a Hammer film (no more than a half hour into a film). Typically, it’s either the place where exposition is doled out or the “inciting incident” happens (to use a screenwriting term) or sometimes both. Here, it’s Kipps’ first clue that something isn’t right.
Most of the film is devoted to Kipps’ investigation of Eel Marsh House, a wonderfully creepy manor cut off from the rest of the village by a low-tide marsh. He’s a rational man, but not so skeptical that he doesn’t start to connect the dots between Eel Marsh’s bumps in the night and the mysterious deaths of the children in the nearby town. Though warned off by nearly everyone, Kipps continues to investigate, motivated by the task at hand and his own unfortunate curiosity.
Hammer films walked a fine line between adult sophistication and supernatural hokum. It’s a line that appeals to me greatly, and it’s the same one that The Woman in Black walks. There’s an air of importance and class hard at work to elevate all of the spooky nonsense into something memorable. Some Hammers succeed better than others, and The Woman in Black is one of the more successful ones. Its ambitions are low, and its pacing is airtight.
I can’t quite make up my mind on how I feel about the film’s very modern ghost gags, which include noisy jump scare musical stings and some judicious use of CGI. One scene in particular was almost exactly like one of the moments in the Pang Brothers’ The Eye, with the ghost sort of flying toward the camera quickly, as if on a haunted skateboard. I can honestly say I never expected to see Asian horror influence at work in a Hammer film, but then I’m reminded of The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (a Shaw Bros./Hammer co-production), and I’m all confused again.
If the scares even work at all it’s because of the overall gloomy atmosphere. The most harrowing part of the movie is not even ghostly, but a nail-biting sequence which sees Kipps, with a rope tied around his waist, diving into the black bog to retrieve a dead body. The ghost stuff is, honestly, a little shop-worn. It’s not that it’s not effective; it’s that its effectiveness if diluted by familiarity. How scary The Woman in Black is depends entirely on how many haunted house movies you’ve seen. There is nothing new under its fog-shrouded sun.
Honestly, I think I liked that this wasn’t anything new. It was comforting, in a way, to see a horror film neither try and re-invent the wheel with cleverness nor aim for being unrelentingly unpleasant. The Woman in Black is a small-scale effort, well-made enough to feel satisfying, with an appealing lead actor and stand-out art direction, and really nothing more. Much like the Hammers before it, it’s a timeless B-movie that will continue to play perfectly on many rainy Sunday afternoons in the decades after it. Not every movie has to be a game-changer.