Daniel Radcliffe stars in this unabashedly old-fashioned haunted-house film as a lawyer in Victorian England sent to investigate the death of a woman in a creepy mansion. The story, based on a book-turned-play, is a collection of tropes from many Gothic ghost stories, but they're effectively put together, and Radcliffe shows signs of maturing past his Harry Potter persona.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
The desire to be frightened is a strange impulse that nonetheless has created careers for everyone from John Carpenter to the people who design roller coasters. It's also proving a lucrative genre for Daniel Radcliffe, who -- fresh from vanquishing a frightening foe in the Harry Potter series -- stops shaving, looks grief-stricken, and puts on the cloak of a doting father in The Woman in Black, an old-fashioned ghost story.
It's a good vehicle for Radcliffe, even though he's never quite persuasive as a grown-up parent: He has a look of perpetual adolescence, like a more sorrowful Hugh Grant. Still, it's his charisma that is likely to draw a younger audience to a Gothic haunted-house tale that has none of the trappings -- torture, exploding bodies, imperilled teenagers -- of the modern horror film.
Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer in Victorian England who is dispatched to the unpromising-sounding town of Crythin Gifford -- oh, for Crythin Gifford -- to investigate the estate of a reclusive woman. She lived in Eel Marsh House -- another ominous sign -- just across the Nine Lives Causeway, surrounded by ruined gardens, lapping waters, and a graveyard. No one seems interested in buying it, for some reason.
Kipps is a haunted man, mourning a wife who died in childbirth four years earlier, and, for all his diminutive youthfulness, Radcliffe does manage to evoke a mature, understated sense of collapsed hope. Leaving behind his beloved son, he takes the train to a cloistered English village that is also backward, fearful, and darkly suspicious. Every window seems to contain the blank face of someone looking at him, even -- yikes! -- when there's no one there.
Arthur is greeted by the local innkeeper, who advises him to take the next train home, and the local lawyer, who advises him to take the next train home, but he finds an ally in Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds, whose funereal bulk only adds to the mood of portent). Arthur goes to Eel Marsh house to look through the dead woman's papers, but spends most of the movie searching for the source of the mansion's mysterious noises.
They're everywhere: The Woman in Black (adapted from a 1982 novel by Susan Hill) provides all the tropes: the reverse camera angle, so we get the someone-is-there-eye view; the creepy off-key playing of nursery tunes by ominous-looking toys (including that old favourite, the monkey with the clashing cymbals); and the sudden appearance of faces, typically accompanied by a loud, slightly metallic crash. It's hard to beat the unexpected "boo!" -- or worse, the expected one -- for aficionados of spill-your-popcorn frights.
Director James Watkins (Eden Lake) has respect for such traditions, and he manages to evoke much exquisite tension in scenes where Kipps walks down long corridors holding a candle, approaching locked doors that suddenly open, or turning to see ghostly shapes outlined in the gloom. The Woman in Black is not a long film, but some of those dark hallways seem to take hours.
You long for the relief of daylight and the common-sense dismissals of Sam, who says things like, "I believe even the most rational mind can play tricks in the dark." But then we meet Sam's wife (Janet McTeer), who's also mourning a dead child -- half the cast of The Woman in Black seems to be uneasily buried or missing in the moors -- and is possessed by a sorrowful madness that has its own, well-lit creepiness.
The secrets of The Woman in Black turn out to be as you might expect: It's the telling of the tale, rather than the upshot, that provides the shivers. The last 20 minutes of the movie, as Arthur tries to make peace with malevolent forces, loosen a tension that has been so lovingly screwed tight during the course of the film. By the end, you wonder why you were so scared. After all, there was nothing much in those dark rooms. Nothing much but . . . boo!