Even as three cherubic young girls, innocuously groomed and bowed, enjoy a tea party with their dolls, there is a pervasive sense of uneasiness; the background music is rather ominous and chilling, and the dolls look strangely sinister, their expressions overly blank and artificial. Then, suddenly, the girls, as if under a spell, drop their dolls, walk over to the triptych window, and simultaneously jump to their deaths. There is a flutter of black chiffon—the Woman in Black (Liz White) had manipulated them to commit suicide.
Furious at the death of her young son, the Woman in Black, the antagonist of James Watkins’ “The Woman in Black,” haunts a remote country estate called Eel Marsh and compels the innocent children of nearby town Crythin Gifford to commit suicide. Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young attorney, is called into the fear-stricken town when Alice Drablow, the widow of the secluded Eel Marsh House, dies and he is assigned to finalize her affairs.
Granted, this assignment is his last chance to salvage his job, but even so, Kipps works with an incomprehensibly dogged dedication, choosing to remain—and even spend the night—in the eerie Eel Marsh House even as he repeatedly hears footsteps, strange creaking noises, the rocking of a rocking chair, and even catches glimpses of the Woman in Black herself.
In his defense, Kipps does attempt to find out the reason for the hair-raising happenings, but his endeavors, for much of the movie, are limited to a single second-floor corridor and frustratingly fruitless. Unfortunately, the film is similarly one-sided.
Watkins is spot-on in terms of details. The shots of the English countryside are breathtaking, and the set, brimming with sinister-looking children’s toys, is hauntingly beautiful. It is also perhaps the primary component in creating the horror-movie ambience, along with Marco Beltrami’s magnificently disquieting soundtrack, which tastefully incorporates delicate, tinkling sounds in addition to low-pitched, full-bodied strings.
However, the same type of attention is lacking in terms of the larger picture; too much of the movie depends on the special effects. Questions central to comprehending the film are unanswered, like why did Kipps refuse Samuel Daily’s (Ciarán Hinds) offer to pick him up at the end of the day, even after his paranormal experiences at the Eel Marsh House? Why did he continue his assignment, anyway, after he learned that the Woman in Black preyed on innocent children and his young son was to join him a few days later?
Incidentally, while Daniel Radcliffe may be eager to distance himself from Harry Potter the Boy Wizard and establish himself as an “adult” actor, his playing a married man with a son is a bit of a stretch. Otherwise, his performance is fine, but it is overshadowed by Janet McTeer’s, whose bloodcurdling of portrayal of Mrs. Daily’s trances is one of the highlights of the movie.
Of course, the true test of a horror movie was whether or not it scared the viewers. “The Woman in Black” partially succeeded—there is a general sense of impending doom throughout the movie, aided by its set and soundtrack, and Mrs. Daily’s trances certainly linger in the mind’s eye. However, the logical inconsistencies detract much from the film, and, ultimately, its impact is fleeting.