Mon
Feb 6 2012 1:00pm

How to Succeed in Haunting Without Really Trying: The Woman in Black

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.

14 comments
N. Mamatas
1. N. Mamatas
SNL Wayne’s World bit in which Garth praises every small container with the phrase “you could put your weed in there.

That's actually a Rob Schneider skit:

http://snltranscripts.jt.org/93/93aweed.phtml
Emmet O'Brien
3. EmmetAOBrien
I couldn’t help but wonder if the powers-that-be wouldn’t have done better
to title the film The Haunting of Radcliffe.

Nah, people would just think it was Mysteries of Udolpho metafiction.
N. Mamatas
4. gord314
Daily's son locked him in the closet to keep him away from the women in black. He was released from the closet as soon as she had gane away for the time being.
Lauren W
6. laurene135
I enjoyed this movie, but I agree that the ending fell a little flat. Mainly because they didn't explain very much of the mystery.
I don't understand why the ghosts of the children the Woman in Black killed are trapped on the earth (we see them throughout the film), but when Mr. Kips and his son die, they get to go to heaven.

EDIT:
I did want to point out something that I think this movie did wonderfuly:
Most horror movies these days seem to only be able to take place at night and the characters get a reprieve during the day because there is too much sunlight for the hauntings to continue. Something I always found silly.
I love how the directors made Eel Marsh House haunting even in the middle of the day, and make you feel the characters would never be safe in that house, regardless of the time of day.
Ryan Britt
7. ryancbritt
@6 lauren
Great point! Maybe The Woman in Black was throwing old Kips a bone there because at least he TRIED to make her happy. But then that would imply The Woman in Black gets to decide who goes to heaven...uh-oh.
Lauren W
8. laurene135
@7. ryancbritt
That's an interesting thought! But she didnt seem very pleased to me at the end, so I felt that that wasn't her intention. I'm just saddened that the movie didnt make this clearer.
I've had some discussion with the friends I viewed this with and we've had numerous theories, but there is too little explaination in the film to validify any.

Has anyone seen the 1989 version of this film? I'm curious to see how that plot plays out and if it holds any answers.
Ian B
9. Greyfalconway
A few thoughts I had while watching this movie, also Spoilers:

1. I honestly thought Mr. Daily was being played by Clive Owen, now extremely fat/old, I'm relieved to see thats not the case, lol.

2. I couldn't help thinking at the beginning, 'Oh look Harry's on the Hogwarts Express again,' 'Oh neat look at all the old paintings and staircases, I wonder when they're going to start moving' 'Creepy black-clad figure doing freaky terrible things - conjure your patronus Harry!

3. At the end when Harry put the little boy on the bed and was trying to get her to show up, and they switched to the scene of creepy things downstairs with Mr. Daily, it had a shot of him looking at the picture with the scratched out eyes and it seemed like he was making a revelation to some sort of twist. I thought at that moment that the lady in black wasn't the crazy mom but the aunt who'd taken the son, and it sort of made sense, since the aunt could've made up/set up the mom about being crazy so she could take and kill the kid because she's actually the crazy one, or something. It didn't make sense to me that the mom of the drowned child would go evil and start taking other children from their rightful mothers, but unfortunately that's exactly what happened and theres no twist, lol. It was just really odd to me to have that reaction shot of Daily right at that climax, when that reveal could've been made really well, and then have nothing actually happen with it.

4. There was a massive amount of children in the audience for some reason, I guess the moms all thought Radcliffe = Family Friendly? Three girls in the row ahead of me literally had booster seats

5. The end was touching, but I was laughing because when harry jumped in front of the train to save james sirius, a big group of teens started applauding prematurely because they thought he had saved him, but then sat in an embarassed silence when they realized 'i say you he dead'

6. The lady in black is an ungrateful b*tch, I mean really, he got down in that yucky crap just to make you happy and lay your son to rest, and you still try and screw him over? Also that shot of her at the end looking away from the camera then slowly looking at the camera was really cheesy

7. Overall I thought Radcliffe did a good job as someone other than harry, and can hopefully star in some other stuff that is a bit better, and the other performances were all as good as they could be for what the script gave them. I would probably recommend this movie to people that liked The Grudge or Darkness Falls, or if you enjoy having your girlfriend clawing at you and scrambling around in her seat in terror at the jump scare moments and making the people next to you stare in irritation, not a terrible movie but not something you'd really want to see again and again
Heather Jones
10. JourneywomanJones
Saw this as a play in Johannesburg and it was absolutely brilliant. Sounds like the rewrite has been quite imaginative (and that's not a good thing)...
simon
11. simonk1905
I saw the woman in black (Play Version) as a 15 year old (1990 ish) as part of my GCSE drama course at school.

I must say that at the time it was the scariest thing I had ever seen. I have always had trouble suspending my disbelief for horror films and books and maybe it was something about the fact that there were really people in the theatre with me which made the whole thing work.

Unfortunately like with everything which is popular the woman in black has become a victim of its own success. The first film is supposed to be good I have seen it but cannot remember it at all so I can't comment but with so many versions out there and so many people talking about how great a book/play/radio play etc it is I feel that this film will be a dissapointment for those coming to it for the first time, due to hype, and a dissapointment to those who have come across it before for not living up to expectations.

As with most films these day none of them seem to be worth forking out money for to see at the cinema so I will just have to wait for it to find it's way to TV and then make a judgement.
N. Mamatas
12. Jim D.
The author, for reasons I don't now remember, hates the first film, and doesn't even mention it on her website. I do remember that at one time she asked fans not to buy copies of it if they should see them listed on eBay, etc, and swore that this version would never be re-released while she had any say in the matter. (I'm seeing the new one this weekend...)
N. Mamatas
13. Kesoren
I loved that this was a horror film without all the slash ‘em up gore. At first, I was a bit disappointed with the ending. I thought that with the burial of the woman’s son, that she should have been pacified instead of hanging onto her hate and desire to get revenge. Then I thought on it a bit more and came to a different conclusion. I’m not saying I’m right, but it makes me like the ending a little more. What if the woman in black was only returning the favor Radcliff had done for her, by uniting him and his son, to his wife who he deeply missed? She had been so caught up in not being with her son, that one may conclude that she could only think that that is what Radcliff would want as well, so it was her parting favor to him.
N. Mamatas
14. Tolocama
@ 13, agreed with your closing remarks

at the begining of the movie the son points out that daniel radcliffe has looked depressed since his son's birth, he constantly see's his wife who he dearly misses, his death and reunion with his wife was a happy one, he left with his wife smiling, i thought the ending shot of the woman in black was more of a, "what do you think?" do you think his death was a punisment, or a gift, she didnt steal their souls so i think they passed into the "next life", as for the other children i would like to believe she wont steal any more lives from children because she has gained a considerable amount of playmates for her son, but hopefully, just hopefully this movie isnt butchered with a woman in black 2, which when stated sounds like a straight to dvd film which sadly, i might see on my next visit to the grocery store

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