Monday, February 13, 2012

The Woman in Black (2012)

The Woman in Black
Dir. James Watkins

2.5 out of 5

Daniel Radcliffe is dangerously close to being typecast as the unassuming hero of The Woman in Black, an Edwardian ghost story about a rural English village where superstition links a tragedy at a spooky old mansion and the accidents that have disproportionally claimed the lives of the community's children. Who better to put on the haggard, hangdog expression of a man put-upon by the supernatural better than the once and future Harry Potter? To his credit, Radcliffe maximizes the bland role of a widowed lawyer who is assigned to manage the estate of Eel Marsh, gradually uncovering its gruesome secrets while a vengeful spirit looks over his shoulder. Fearing for the safety of his own son (who's due to arrive in the doomed village within three days), Radcliffe convinces the skeptical landowner Ciarán Hinds to help him put the town's demons to rest, a jolly endeavor that involves the exhumation of two corpses. So much for resting in peace.

Though it establishes an appropriately grey and lonely atmosphere early on, the entire film is subsequently cheapened by its reliance on a barrage of cheap, fleeting funhouse scares. The Eel Marsh house is a location tailor-made for horror, an eerie Gothic manse in the middle of a swamp that floods during high tide, essentially turning it into an island. But this arresting imagery quickly becomes dull and repetitive, with Radcliffe padding down the same upstairs corridor, sticking his head into the same room to investigate whatever weird noise is interrupting his work this time. Eventually Radcliffe decides that he has to get to the bottom of things, and his ill-advised decision to isolate himself in the house for one night does produce a bushel of genuinely tense scenes. Overall, however, James Watkins' direction gives the film a kind of Scooby-Doo vibe that it struggles mightily to surmount.

Nor is The Woman in Black very successful in paying off its silly internal logic with any lasting sense of dread. Radcliffe is chewed out by his boss at the beginning of the movie, and he's a pariah in the village for reopening old wounds, but that doesn't prevent him from morphing into a Sherlockian genius-slash-amateur medium as the plot rushes to a conclusion. The film's jerky, muddled anticlimax lacks novelty and begs for some interesting period detail - like, say, a makeshift séance - to consolidate its several allusions to the post-Victorian fascination with spiritualism. The Woman in Black is appealing mostly in the same way as an expensively-appointed haunted house: the lighting, the costumes, and the furnishings make top-notch window dressing. But it all suggests a refined approach to a more psychological form of horror without delivering on this promise, and the end result is as disappointingly insubstantial as most modern creepshows.

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