Hammer horror fans, your wishes have come true: the Gothic ghost story is back, full of creepy apparitions, foggy British marshes and old-timey sideburns. And as an added bonus it's all just as not-scary as you remember.
Now, if the name Hammer means nothing to you, it's because you were either born too late to experience the legendary British studio's heyday or, if you're old like me, you just weren't paying attention when movies like The Gorgon or Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed were playing on Saturday afternoon television. The Hammer aesthetic involved things that went bump in the night, glamorous lady-ghosts with big hair, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, voluptuous vampire victims, castles, moors, gloom, fog and lots of English people standing around discussing the horror that the posters and trailers promised would chill your blood but never really did. In spite of this stiffness, these movies were somehow magically entertaining. I don't know what laws of movie physics went into that successful equation, but I'm glad for the mystery of their existence. Which brings us to Daniel Radcliffe.
It's the earliest part of the 20th century and Mr. Radcliffe plays a widowed attorney who has left his young son in London with the nanny in order to travel north and settle the estate of a recently deceased woman. There he finds the local villagers hiding their children away in fear of the town's greedy ghost. The Woman in Black, the ghoulish spirit of a young mother whose son drowned in the area's swampy mud, is taking children left and right, possessing them to commit suicide in a variety of nasty ways (drinking lye, jumping from high windows). Radcliffe -- going for it by checking into his first post-Harry movie role with a face and manner as adult, worn out, pale and dead inside as a spunky former child star can muster -- thinks he can set this doom-scenario right and... well, you'll see.
He's torn, though, too. Earnestly warning him to stop all this superstitious hogwash is Ciaran Hinds, the richest man in the village whose own son has died under mysterious circumstances. And whispering (shrieking really) into Radcliffe's other ear is Hinds' wife (played by Janet McTeer), who's gone round the bend with grief and, it seems, is actually possessed by the spirit of her murdered child. Don't be caught walking out to the concession stand when McTeer's on screen, treating her identical dog "twins" like substitute children and freaking out at the dinner table. It's nuts.
Also, don't expect horror the way you've come to know it. Yes, it's PG-13 and that means shock-cuts and cheap jolts from time to time. That's inevitable when you aren't dealing in body counts, point-of-impact murders or gore. But what Hammer films really deliver is dread, cobwebs, spooky art direction, atmosphere, shadows, the tension of long silences and a weird sorrow that lasts past the closing frame. Maybe that's a British thing and the rest of us aren't meant to really get it. But it works for me.