Friday, February 3, 2012

The Woman in Black: Laughably gloomy

The Woman in Black (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and numerous scenes of children in peril
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.3.12

This film opens with such promise.

Having deliberately encouraged the nasty, black-garbed specter of Eel Marsh
House to show itself, Arthur Kripps (Daniel Radcliffe) hopes to bring closure
to the tormented spirit, thus eliminating its campaign of terror against the
residents of a nearby village.
Sherlock Holmes’ England comes to vibrant life at the hands of production designer Kave Quinn, and star Daniel Radcliffe seems fully comfortable in this early 20th century setting. Scripter Jane Goldman concisely sketches a tragic back-story for this bereft young man — a solicitor named Arthur Kipps, whose wife died in childbirth — and director James Watkins gently surrounds us with an atmosphere of melancholy.

The mood turns intriguing, then ominous, as Kipps' legal firm sends him to the tiny, remote village of Crythin Gifford (actually Halton Gill, in the middle of Northern England’s Yorkshire Dales: a truly lovely location). Mrs. Alice Drablow, a reclusive widow and sole resident of outlying Eel Marsh House — separated from the rest of the community by a lone roadway that floods with each high tide — has passed away; the estate is in something of a mess.

Kipps’ job is to ensure that no late-stage codicils might be lying about the paper-strewn mansion, thus invalidating the will filed back in London.

The local villagers are wary and terrified of ... something ... that they fail to share with Arthur. Eel Marsh House is haunted, of course, by The Woman in Black; this big-screen adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1982 novel is — by design — a classic Victorian ghost story.

Unfortunately, the film’s rich atmosphere goes to waste once we move past this prologue and its essential details; the story quickly runs off the rails, becoming sillier by the moment. Nothing makes sense, least of all the villagers’ increasingly idiotic response to a curse they’ve apparently lived with for years.

Worse yet, Watkins sabotages his own efforts at building nervous tension by relying increasingly on in-our-face smash cuts, accompanied by both shrieks from the eponymous phantasm and discordant screeches from Marco Beltrami’s thoroughly obnoxious score.

In other words, we’re never actually frightened by these proceedings, merely startled by very loud noises. There’s a big difference, and the distinction — Watkins’ failure to generate actual terror — quickly grows tedious.

Stanley Kubrick’s emotionally barren 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining failed to generate any real tension because Jack Nicholson’s protagonist was a deranged fruit bat even before he set foot inside the haunted hotel; we never had an opportunity to experience the mental disintegration of a good man turned evil by malevolent spirits, as was the case in King’s novel.

Similarly, there’s no build-up in Goldman’s handling of the activity within Eel Marsh House; the place clearly is infested with bad vibes and worse from the moment Arthur steps across the threshold. Every time he turns around, he sees palms pressed against upstairs windows, angry faces glaring back at him, chairs that rock on their own, and mechanical toys that spring into life spontaneously.

The drill becomes predictable and monotonous: If our hero slowly bends forward to peer at or into something — Tim Maurice-Jones’ camera pulling in for a tight close-up — you can bet that something else will leap into Arthur’s (and our) field of vision. Generally screaming. As Beltrami’s jarring underscore clangs anew.

Ghost stories are supposed to make more sense as the underlying “big secret” is revealed: not so here. As essential details become clear, the behavior of these characters simply seems more daft.

It turns out that Alice Drablow’s sister, Jennet, bore a child out of wedlock; to avoid scandal, the boy was raised by Alice and her husband. But being separated from her son took a terrible toll on Jennet, who subsequently went mad when the little boy was killed in a tragic accident. Jennet, blaming her sister and brother-in-law for the boy’s death, hung herself soon thereafter.

Most vengeful ghosts would be content to haunt those deemed responsible for their anguish, but no: Jennet is quite the monster. She takes out her wrath on everybody in Crythin Gifford: Every time her dark, spectral presence is seen, another child dies ... horribly.

And so what do these villagers do, in the face of this obvious curse? Why, they just wait around for the next little girl to drink lye, or the next little boy to walk into deep water.

I dunno about you, but I’d at least try to move ... oh ... anywhere else!

Since Jennet’s enraged ghost obviously is responsible for this misery, and has been for quite some time before Arthur even arrives at Crythin Gifford, why, then, are all the villagers so hostile to him? They know he’s not to blame, and yet they behave as if he’s in league with Satan himself.

On top of which, you’d think at least a few hopeful folks would seize upon Arthur’s involvement as a possible means of getting to the bottom of the mystery, and laying the ghost to rest.

Which is precisely what Arthur — established as open-minded on the subject of spiritualism, due to grief over his dead wife — sets out to do. This leads to a third-act climax that is guaranteed to irritate viewers who expect positive (if not happy) results from valiant effort. What’s the sense of revealing a puzzle, if it can’t be solved?

Ah, but that’s the nature of “scary” films these days. As with modern “survival” dramas that don’t allow their characters to survive — see The Grey — ghost stories rarely permit a satisfying triumph of good over evil, or any sort of reward for good intentions. Katie Holmes’ character busted her ass to save her young step-daughter in last year’s ill-advised remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and for her trouble, in the final scene, became one of the nasty, teeth-munching goblins living in the bowels of a basement grate.

We wind up in similar territory here, and really: How can anybody be satisfied with such an outcome? It’s just a final, eye-rolling insult: an insufferable epilogue to a stupid story populated by fools we’ve long since ceased to care about.

The actors here aren’t to blame. Radcliffe does a fine job as the grieving Arthur, his sallow features and bleak gaze haunted more by his own anguished memories, than anything he encounters at Eel Marsh House. Ciarán Hinds makes a stalwart colleague as Samuel Daily, a wealthy landowner in Crythin Gifford who becomes Arthur’s sole friend and ally.

Daily bears his own sorrow; he and his wife (Janet McTeer) lost their young son to the same horrid curse. But Daily, his head grounded in the real world, attributes the death to a random accident and refuses to believe in superstitious nonsense ... even though his wife seems to be channeling the spirit of their dead son.

McTeer, also a powerful actress, deftly delivers a complex character in her few brief scenes.

Misha Handley, Radcliffe’s actual godson, does a superlative job as Joseph, Arthur’s 4-year-old son: the child Arthur’s wife died bringing into this world. The camera simply loves this little boy, whose doting expressions and precious dialogue establish a strong, loving bond between father and son.

Genre fans will recognize, during the voluminous opening credits (12 producers and seven production companies? Gimme a break!), that this adaptation of The Woman in Black also bears the banner of Britain’s Hammer Films. This venerable horror studio made its deliciously gory name with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein and 1958’s The Horror of Dracula, both turning Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into stars.

Within a few years, Hammer became known for a stylish blend of gore and the bared flesh of a repertory company of free-spirited British babes; the studio wholly re-invented a horror genre until then best known by the increasingly creaky 1940s Universal Studios monster flicks. Hammer’s ghoulish light faded in the mid-’70s with lesser entries such as Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, as the public’s taste shifted from Gothic horror to galaxy-spanning sci-fi.

A few attempts to resurrect the studio brand were made during the subsequent decades, but nothing “took” until quite recently, after Dutch producer John De Mol purchased the company’s name — and voluminous film library — in 2007. The best result thus far was this revived Hammer’s involvement with 2010’s Let Me In, the nifty remake of the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In.

Unfortunately, this “new” Hammer also was behind last year’s atrocious Hilary Swank vehicle, The Resident — which, in a nod to history, also featured Christopher Lee —and now The Woman in Black.

Simon Oakes, present and CEO of today’s Hammer, insists — I’m quoting press notes — that “his incarnation of Hammer [will] focus on genre movies that are intelligent.”

Apparently, the makers of The Woman in Black failed to get that memo.

More’s the pity.

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