To call The Woman in Black a Daniel Radcliffe vehicle would be akin to that old SNL Wayne’s World bit in which Garth praises every small container with the phrase “you could put your weed in there.” Just because we’re used to the image of this scrappy English guy wielding a lantern/candle/wand while crossing paths with spooks or demons, doesn’t mean he must do such things for the rest of his career. With his first post-Potter outing, Radcliffe lands himself in the middle of a haunted house disguised as a movie. The haunted house part works. The movie doesn’t.
Spoilers for The Woman in Black ahead
When Daniel Radcliffe first appears after a chilling prologue, I couldn’t help but wonder if the powers-that-be wouldn’t have done better to title the film The Haunting of Radcliffe. They could have gone with a straight meta-fictional conceit of Daniel Radcliffe being literally haunted by the ghosts of his immediate past as he tries to forge a movie career for himself outside of playing perhaps the most famous protagonist in the past 20 years. Sure, The Woman in Black is based on a bona fide horror novel, but perhaps a little bit more wink-wink nudge-nudge could have been employed here to help us all get over the hump of seeing him in something OTHER than Harry Potter.
Radcliffe plays a young widower named Arthur Kips who has fallen upon hard times with his work at an early Edwardian law firm. They’re not thrilled with some of the work he’s been doing lately, and he has one last chance to make it up before becoming totally bankrupt. He has a four-year-old son, and a maid, since his wife (seen briefly in flashback) died in childbirth. Bummer. The case Kips is given involves sorting through a bunch of legal documents pertaining to the recent death of a widow living in a countryside town outside of London which I can only refer to as Creepytown-straight-from-Frankenstein-or-other-movies-of-this-ilk. We already know some screwed up stuff went down in Creepytown owing to a sequence at the beginning in which three little girls casually jump out the window of a house, tragically interrupting their creepy tea party with their untimely deaths.
Upon arriving in Creepytown, as in a classic horror film like Dracula, Kips is told not to go to the house where he’s supposed to go, because terrible things will happen if he does. You have to hand it to the movie at this point, insofar as it’s pretending like we’ve never seen any of this before. Oddly, this formula almost always works, and it does here too. The viewer starts suspecting everyone in the town has something to hide, and the notions of terrible things going down out in the countryside which surpass anything that could happening in an urban setting are employed to maximum effect. Radcliffe! Get back to London and ditch these weirdos! But he’s got to stay, and check out the haunted house, because he’ll get fired if he doesn’t take care of this case.
Only one person in town is nice to him, a character named Mr. Daily (Cirian Hinds) who, like nearly everyone in Creepytown, had a child die young for seemingly no reason. Daily has Kips over for dinner with his wife, who promptly freaks everyone out by trying to make a drawing out on the kitchen table with a knife. Whoa! Is her dead son speaking through her? Pshaw! Mr. Daily says. People either go to heaven or nothing happens. Ghosts don’t hang around on Earth!
At this point, I started floating the notion of a possible Scooby-Doo reveal, in which someone like Daily was responsible for all the haunting, and The Woman in Black was just a fabrication. Who is The Woman in Black you ask? Kips discovers the woman’s death he is investigating was not the actually mother of her child, but rather the adoptive mother of her sister’s child. Her sister was crazy, and wrote threatening letters after her son was taken from her. Then the kid drowned in the bog, or the swamp or something, causing the woman to hang herself. Henceforth, her ghost, The Woman in Black causes other children to randomly choose their own death. Apparently, as the fairly-recent legend goes, this only happens if she is seen. And she was seen by Kips. Oops. That’s why they didn’t want him to go the house.
While in the house, the movie totally works. Daniel Radcliffe moves from room to room, upstairs and downstairs encountering a crazy movie sound, a visage of The Woman in Black, or something else totally scary every time he does anything. (A drinking game here involving taking a shot every time Radcliffe lights a match or hears a sound would be deadly.) To the film’s credit, I jumped out of my seat and swore at least a dozen times during these sequences. These scenes are crafted extremely well, with the only moments of dialogue being things like Radcliffe yelling “who’s there?!” only to be met with images of dead children, or the titular character’s crazy pissed-off ghost face. (I love this kind of thing in movies like this, because I always want the character to say something like “Really? Are you kidding me with this right now?”) But they don’t, so the haunted house thing works.
Eventually, Kips and Daily think maybe this ghost is all right and is just mad because her son never got a proper burial. Kips is like...hey, if we find the kid’s body and reunite it with the Mom, everything will be cool right? This involves a strange scene in which Daniel Radcliffe wades around in the muck in search of the place where the son of The Woman in Black drowned all those years ago. Here, the movie does something very weird, which I’m almost tempted call “breaking the rules.” For the entire film, we’ve been with Kips, like a close-third person point of view in a novel. But suddenly, when Kips is underneath the bog, we’re with Daily. It’s subtly jarring, and at first I thought it was intentional. Maybe Daily DOES have some kind of secret. And after the body of the dead kid is recovered, this happens again. The Woman in Black basically tells Kips thanks but no thanks, and continues to freak out. Meanwhile Daily sees the ghost of his dead son, which locks him in a room briefly. It’s scary, but ultimately never explained.
The film concludes quite strangely with Kips’ son and nursemaid arriving via train from London. Kips immediately declares everyone is turning right around and getting back on the train. Maybe the Woman in Black is still pissed off and interested in offing kids? Damn straight. Because the ghost-with-the-most shows up again and suggests that Kips’ son should go hang out on the train tracks. Tragedy! Radcliffe realizes this nearly too late and jumps on the train track to save his son. Where…they both die. Yes, you read that right, they both die. We witness the reaction of Daily and the nursemaid, and then cut to Radcliffe cradling his son in his arms. Who is waiting for them? Why, it’s the Woman in White! The dead mother of Kips’ son, and his wife who he misses. Now they are all together. A happy ending?
I couldn’t help but wonder if there were large portions of the novel simply dropped in favor of an atmospheric film. The reveals in the “mystery” are fairly exciting, but they really amount to nothing, because everything the characters do is rendered useless due to their death. This bit of inevitable tragedy could have been satisfying if the movie hadn’t been so intent on simply providing thrills. One of the studios responsible for this film was Hammer Studios, famous for their horror productions. Certainly many of these older films are guilty of shoddy plots, but they always buoyed their efforts in great performances from the likes of Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing.
On paper, having Daniel Radcliffe step into a Hammer film, made only for the purpose of scaring you is a good idea. But his performance is dull, either because of him, bad direction, or bad writing. The Woman in Black has been a novel, a TV movie, a radio play, and a stage play. Maybe this homogenization combined with Radcliffe’s persona hurt the production. I think the reason I was concerned about the character in all the jumpy moments was because he was Daniel Radcliffe, and not because I cared about his character or believed in the ghost.
While totally scary in the moment, this film was not remotely memorable. The truly haunting horror films have to succeed at not only scaring us in the moment, but making those moments linger when we’re long outside the cinema. This one did the first part just fine. But like the Woman in Black herself, you’ll only remember this movie again if you happen to catch a glimpse of it in a magazine, on TV, or in an advertisement. In short, this ghost won’t haunt you.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. If you sneak up behind him and give him a good scare, his beard falls off.