Children. It’s always about the children. They are the easiest targets in horror movies. So cute, so innocent, so helpless.
In James Watkins’ “The Woman in Black” (based on a novel by Susan Hill), there are lots of children, dead children to be more precise. There’s an old woman, Alice Drablow, whose young boy was taken away from her and when he drowned in an accident she swore revenge. Now her ghost comes back and makes the children in the village commit suicide.
In the opening (and most chilling scene) three pale skinned little girls are playing with their dolls when all of a sudden they all stand up in unison and walk over to a nearby window and jump out. The scene isn’t too over the top and it doesn’t go on for that long. It’s subtle and that’s why it’s scary. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie can’t live up to it.
With this movie Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman are trying to make an old school Victorian-era horror movie, using the good old-fashioned haunted house plot device and all the clichés of the genre that go with it (i.e. crude child drawings, the slow turning of doorknobs, etc.). You can’t blame them for trying. The village located in the English countryside is gloomy and miserable looking, full of superstitious and panicked people. Tim Maurice Jones’ cinematography is dim and eerie. Marco Beltrami’s score switches back and forth between twinkly, music box style and creaky string horror music.
It has an ideal haunted house, ivy climbing up the walls, perched on top of a cliff surrounded by a misty marsh, the yard in total disarray, dead leaves on the porch. The interior is filled with a grand, ornately carved mahogany staircase and cobwebs line the ceiling. For the most part all of this stuff is fine in creating atmosphere, although some of the effects (the fog in certain scenes as well as some of the ghosts) do look a little cheap at times.
I find no problem with Watkins wanting to do a back to basics horror film, considering the found footage horror movie is getting a bit stale these days, but he simply tries too hard. Instead of gradually building up the terror and tension, which great horror films like “The Shining” or “The Innocents” do, he throws the scares at you one after the other constantly.
A crow suddenly flying out of a chimney, a dog unexpectedly starts barking, Alice popping up in a corner screaming at the top of her lungs. They may jolt you but only in a giddy way, like the kind of jolt you get while riding a roller coaster, and since this movie takes itself seriously that doesn’t work.
One particularly tedious 10 or 15 minute sequence finds young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe, post “Harry Potter” who’s not given much to do), who has been sent to the village to settle legal affairs for Alice and her estate, running around the house, back and forth, up the stairs then down the stairs, outside and inside again. Hearing some strange noise in one place, then seeing some strange sight in another, over and over and over, like someone who’s going through one of those haunted house attractions that are set up every year around Halloween. True horror sticks with you long after you’ve stopped watching the movie, when you’re in bed struggling to fall asleep. The thrills in “The Woman in Black” (with the exception of the opening scene) are empty and will wear off five minutes after it ends.
If Watkins wants to use all the conventional horror movie clichés, that’s perfectly fine but he needs to do something new with them, especially if the characters are also going to be textbook. Why not get more into the dynamics of the town as opposed to spending most of time on the house? Or maybe give the kids more to do? A film involving cute, creepy and pale children should be scarier than this.