CINEMA: News Weekly
Gothic horror a modern morality tale
, July 7, 2012
The Woman in Black (rated M), starring Daniel Radcliffe and Ciaran Hinds, is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
Horror these days is often seen as an exercise in disgusting and savage violence with nihilistic despair the dominant theme. Movies are less exercises in suspense and terror, than they are in gut-churning scenes of degradation and inhumanity.
It is therefore a relief to see a film like The Woman in Black, adapted from the novel by Susan Hill, something so chilling, so terrifying and so imbued with supernatural dread that it is capable of producing a physical reaction in its viewers, and all without recourse to technicolor depravity.
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe showing that he has all the potential of being a great actor, and not being chained up by Harry Potter) is a young, deeply depressed widower with a bright young son who is offered a final chance by his law firm of getting his life back on track. He is sent out to Eel Marsh House, a large and rambling manor in the country, to sort out the final paperwork of the lady of the house, Mrs Alice Drablow.
From the moment he arrives he is treated with suspicion and barely concealed contempt by all the locals, except for the wealthy gentleman of the town, Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds, giving another excellent performance).
There is a mystery about the house, and an unspoken terror that seems to possess all the inhabitants of the town, whose only aim is to get Arthur to leave as quickly as possible.
This superb movie is an excellent exercise in what can be called classic supernatural horror. It’s unsurprising that it comes from Hammer Film Productions, the venerable British studio that brought Christopher Lee to stardom, and is currently undergoing something of a revival. It is English gothic in every sense of the word, with ancient houses, supernatural happenings, terrified townsfolk unable to talk and the overwrought emotions of long-buried secrets.
It opens with an absolutely chilling scene involving young girls having a tea party with a nursery rhyme-like soundtrack and continues rollicking on from there. Themes of spiritualism and insanity mix with the sufferings and griefs of parents who lose their children, and the perils and difficulties of hard decisions where outcomes cannot be known.
The setting suits its purposes, beginning with the grimy depression of early 20th-century London, and then moving on to a primitive countryside cut off from the rest of the world, a place where the modern age has no foothold and there’s mud, mud and more mud. The occasional moment of light relief and laughter allows a viewer’s heart rate to adjust, in between waiting for the next terror.
This movie also has an intriguing theological dimension, of which not much can be said without spoiling the first viewing, about the nature of the dead and their role in the world of the living. The points that it raises in the minds of the theologically observant are both unsettling and profoundly conservative.
In a way, there is only one path that the film can tread and make sense, and it is this path that is trod. As with all good supernatural films, it still leaves questions unanswered; but, because it deals with things unknown by natural means, this is to be expected and applauded.
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) and Mrs Daily (Janet McTeer) in The Woman in Black
The performances are all of a top-notch standard, with the many children playing especially stand-out roles; but Daniel Radcliffe shines, or rather glooms, his way through his role of being the dedicated and depressed law clerk desperately trying to make good his last chance, and quite unaware of what powers he is dealing with, until it is too late.
It is a feature of critical discussion of horror that these are modern morality tales, with an aim of expressing in visual, visceral format the pre-modern values that our world has largely sought to abandon. In this instance, it is simply concerning the duties we owe to the dead, and to the young — all those in fact who cannot speak or act on their own behalf.
It is a simple thing, but one with tremendous resonance in a time when we seek to see ourselves solely as cogs in a machine, atomistic individuals that owe nothing to anyone but ourselves.
The Woman in Black is psychologically and intellectually simple, but emotionally and spiritually rich. It harks back to those times when our duties were more clear and not obscured by wonders of technology and the expectation that the government was there to solve all our problems.
It is a visceral and terrifying, evocative experience, and one that is astonishingly cathartic. It left this reviewer shaking at its end, overcome by what he had just seen and felt, and keen to escape the dark confines of the cinema.
But the rain was pouring outside, and the sky was grey, and it was as if the Woman in Black was just waiting to make her appearance.