Horror movie protagonists are cut from a different cloth than me. I’d pack my bags and demand that my parents retrieve me from summer camp before the first dead slutty girl had a chance to get cold. Creepy noises and mysterious handprints in the attic? No worries, angry dead person with unfinished business. You can have my house. I’ll get a new one.
In fact, I wouldn’t even make it up the front steps of Eel Marsh House, the base of operations of The Woman in Black’s eponymous spook. Luckily for viewers who don’t want the end credits rolling at the 20-minute mark, Arthur Kipps (a very competent and sympathetic Daniel Radcliffe) is gutsier than I am. The young widower has been sent by his employer, an austere London law firm, to tie up whatever loose ends are flapping about after the death of the house’s owner. It’s Arthur’s last chance to save his job and keep himself and his 4-year-old son out of some gruel-slinging Dickensian poorhouse, so he’s quite motivated to get the job done. He’ll get no help, though, from the hostile inhabitants of Crythin Gifford, the dreary village that breaks out in dead children whenever the mysterious Woman in Black makes an appearance.
I know what you’re thinking: Cursed villages? Creepy mansions? Aren’t there any new ideas anymore? Probably not. But even if there were, they’d get the cold shoulder in this latest incarnation of Susan Hill’s 1982 novel. Produced by legendary genre banner Hammer Film Productions, director James Watkins’ chilling spook show isn’t even remotely interested in reinventing the ghost story. There’s nothing in it you haven’t seen before, but its old-school scares are executed so perfectly that it feels fresh again. Besides borrowing a few visual tricks from the wave of Asian horror movies that realigned genre conventions in the ’90s, Woman mostly just pretends the last few decades never happened. It’s an old-dark-house flick that could have been made in the early ’60s, when studios were still cranking out films like The Haunting. For many younger viewers, it will be the first time they’ve had an experience like this in a movie theater.
Things get off to a slow start. The early scenes are full of cheap jump scares and ineffective shock chords as Arthur arrives and sets up shop in the depressed hamlet. It isn’t until the young lawyer decides to spend the night in Eel Marsh House (yes, I know) that the film really kicks into high gear, but it’s relentless from that point on. The house itself becomes as much of a character as any of the people, living or dead, who wander its halls. It’s only accessible for a few hours a day—the tide washes out the road the rest of the time—and Arthur lacks his own transportation, so the “Why don’t they just leave?” question that condemns so many haunted house yarns is dealt with effectively. Arthur’s harrowing night in the house, couched in shadowy cinematography and nerve-shredding sound effects, is one of the most frightening sequences I’ve seen in a long time.
What really makes The Woman in Black work, though, is that it gets why ghost stories scare us. More than our fear of the unknown, more than our fear of the dark, ghost stories exploit our fear of death. It sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how many haunted-house movies never seem to realize this. The Woman in Black does, and it plays that fear like a screeching violin. With her flowing funeral garb and her unfailing tendency to presage the death of a child with every appearance, it’s hard to imagine a more literal interpretation of death than the Woman. It plays on both our desire to catch a peek beyond the veil, and our terror of what might be looking back.
All of this could amount to a thoroughly dull 95 minutes for filmgoers who prefer high-stakes bloody scares. Horror is a personal thing; what has me curled up in a squeaky ball could very well leave you yawning and checking your watch. Don’t go to The Woman in Black expecting gruesome images (though there are a few) or shocking twists (everything happens pretty much how you think it will). Instead, see it for the pleasure of a spooky tale well-told. Check your cynicism at the door and just play along. Trust me, it’s fun.