Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Woman in Black (James Watkin

Hammer time

The film for the most part starts out well: a trio of beautiful young girls, all dressed up in lacy frills, gracefully step in lock-step slow motion across the room and to the window (crushing a toy tea cup on the way), where they promptly and unhesitatingly leap to their deaths.

James Watkins' 2012 adaptation of the 1983 novel by Susan Hill is the latest in a long line. It has been turned into a 1987 stage play in Covent Garden, where it vies with Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap for the title of world's longest running play, and into a 1989 TV movie with a screenplay by the legendary Nigel Kneale (The Quatermass Experiment (1953), Quatermass and the Pit (1958)). It's the latest product of the newly revived Hammer Films, the same outfit that produced Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958), and for the most part, the film takes on some of the pulpy Gothic spirit of those previous productions and of the studio's early successes--an emphasis on light and shadow, on atmosphere, on music and cunning sound design, not to mention an insistence on setting not just as background but as an important and active character. The moldering house with its cavernous rooms are a triumph of production design, filled to the rafters with unquiet furniture, heavy doors, intricate dolls with mottled complexions and inscrutable expressions; the surrounding land is if anything even more unsettling: towering forests, vasts tidelands, a crooked cross standing on a bed of thickest mud.

Enter Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe); his wife has died in childbirth, and his grieving mood has not endeared him to his law firm employers. If he is to keep his job, he has to settle the estate of an old lady client, whose properties include the Eel Marsh House, located on a causeway off of the mainland (tides rise and cut off the road for long periods of the day, increasing the house's already considerable sense of isolation). The townfolk of nearby Crythin Gifford are no help; their kids mostly watch Kipps from behind shut windows, and the parents gang up on occasion in an attempt to drive him back to the city from which he came.

The picture relies on old-fashioned effects so much it's practically a radical break from today's fashion in horror movies: it turns on the ridiculous premise that mere sounds, the shift of shadows, and a few imaginatively staged and photographed images are enough to scare an audience to the edge of their seats. And for the most part, the filmmakers are right: we are caught and held in thrall as Kipps comes to the slow realization that something is very very wrong in not just Eel Marsh House, but nearby Crythin Gifford as well; when he visits a police station two young boys bring in their sister, who they say has drunk some lye; the little girl dribbles bright thick blood down her pale cheeks (think Freddie Francis, Hammer's great house cinematographer, and his way with the color crimson) as she collapses in Kipps' arms. Kipps later learns that every time the Woman is sighted, a child dies.

Perhaps the most disturbing effect of all is the simplest: the Dailys (Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer), possibly the wealthiest couple in the village and the only one who are civil to Kipps (they insist that he stays at their house, and invite him to dinner). Problem is, the Dailys are victim to the Woman as well; their only son drowned. Ms. Daily tells Kipps over dinner that her son communicates with her by possessing her body--she promptly falls off her chair and scratches out with a knife on the wood of the dinner table the image of a hanged woman.

McTeer gives an especially chilling performance: she captures your heart with the quick and easy desperation of a mother grieving for her child, then throws a terrifying rendition of a seizure--you're not sure if it's a genuine fit or if some demon has possessed her. It's like watching your dotty old favorite aunt turn into Linda Blair with the snap of one's fingers, just like that, spinning head and all.

And just like that it all turns to dust. Watkins, presumably desperate to cater to the younger crowd and unconfident of his already gorgeous sets, music and camerawork, resorts to silly digital effects to up the ante; the net result of this unfortunate effort is to trash what Watkins has so carefully established beforehand--the sense of dark mystery and sinister foreboding--in favor of cheap pop-up scares and a silly digitized shrieking wraith. The collapse of this whole impressively constructed and plausibly designed world into a silly digitized mess happens with such speed and thoroughness one is left stunned, and not in a good way. This well and truly is a horror film...just not the kind the filmmakers had intended.

First published in Businessworld, 2.9.12

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