Eel Marsh House stands isolated off the eastern coast of England, surrounded by treacherous marsh, accessible by a causeway only when the tide is low. Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), a troubled young solicitor, is sent from London to settle the estate following the death of owner Mrs Drablow. Kipps is struggling with grief, debt and the care of his four year old son following his wife’s death in childbirth. It is clear his work has been suffering and this assignment is his last chance with the firm.
Arriving in the town of Crythin Gifford, Kipps finds the locals peculiarly unwelcoming – almost as if they are trying to get rid of him. Kipps is undeterred, he knows if he does not complete his assignment it will be ruinous for his family. Only Mr Daily (Hinds), a local landowner who is contemptuous of superstition offers assistance, inviting Kipps into his home and offering him the use of his automobile.
When working through the papers in Eel March House, Kipps sees a mysterious woman in black in the graveyard and uncovers a dark secret. Some years earlier Mrs Drablow’s only son had perished in the marsh, his body never recovered. Ever since Crythin Gifford has suffered from an unusually high infant mortality rate. Desperate to finish his work before the arrival of his own son and his nanny, he elects to spend the night at Eel Marsh.
I approached this adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel with some trepidation. Already adapted into the second longest-running play in London’s West End, and a celebrated 1989 British TV adaptation written by Nigel Kneale, could a new film version wring suspense out of such a well known tale? Worries were not abated by initial reports that the production was to be shot in 3D. Thankfully, the 3D plans fell by the wayside.
Fans of the book, and its earlier adaptations, will already know from the synopsis that screenwriter Goldman (Stardust, Kick Ass, X-Men: First Class) has made changes to Hill’s plot. These may aggrieve purists, but where the stage adaptation was a long, slow build to a supremely scary denouement, it is clear that Goldman and director Watkins (Eden Lake) have decided to craft a well-oiled ghost train from the material. This is Goldman’s most successful work to date and firmly establishes her as a genre screenwriter of serious merit. Watkins has produced a very handsome film, that while certainly gothic and foreboding, does not feel like an overly stylised fantasy. He’s greatly aided in this by the work of cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones. Most importantly, Watkins mounts the film’s many scares with great skill (look out for the monkey with maracas) and makes the film move at a very contemporary pace without sacrificing character and mood.
As Kipps, Daniel Radcliffe does an excellent Ralph Bates. Some may be critical of his performance, but his stiffness is perfect for a character suffering from crippling grief but rigidly keeping up appearances. The actor has never been better on screen, especially in the challenging central section of the film – which is Kipps, alone in a house, having the living daylights scared out of him. Continuing with the Hammer casting theme, Dooley plays exactly the sort of role Michael Ripper would once have filled as an unfriendly innkeeper.
Prior to release the film has been slightly trimmed for British audiences by six seconds to gain a 12 certificate. The Woman in Black is not a gorefest, or a particularly violent film. In fact, it could prove a perfect entry for a new audience into the horror film in much the same way as Poltergeist did in the 1980s. It will be interesting to see if Radcliffe can bring his Harry Potter fanbase with him. If he does, a whole new generation could experience the thrills of a well-crafted horror film.
This is a period ghost story that really works. Properly scary but in a really fun way, The Woman in Black is the film that truly sees Hammer rise from the grave.