Review: The Woman in Black

Of all the genres that encompass cinema, horror has always been the least appealing to me. I will admit that I’m not a fan of being frightened easily, and excessive gore has no enticing value to me, but perhaps most of all, I have never found any real sense of depth or thematic weight in horror films. Frankly, nearly every film in the genre seems like empty exercise in scaring the masses. Granted, I have not done much exploration of the genre due to my aversion to it, but I will concede that I do have a love for such films as Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds, Polanski’s Repulsion, and Herzog’s Nosferatu. However, that adoration is largely due to the fact that those films are impeccably made pieces of cinema that have much more on their minds than simply scaring the bejesus out of audiences. Over the last two decades, the horror genre has been dominated by blood, gore, and nudity, with a complete lack of respect for the audience’s intelligence (whether existent or perceived, since those mindless films still manage to take in millions of dollars). Seemingly out of nowhere comes comes a breath of fresh air: The Woman in Black. A largely restrained and classy affair, The Woman in Black works as an solid throwback to atmospheric, gothic horror, providing more chills than thrills, and it goes against the contemporary gory grain of all other Hollywood productions.

From the outset of the film, a deeply disturbing atmosphere is established as three young girls play with their dolls, and then suddenly drop them to the ground, stand in unison, and jump out of the second story window of their home, possessed by an unseen force. We are then introduced to the protagonist, Arthur Kipps, played with effective subtlety by Daniel Radcliffe. Kipps is a devoted father, but his wife died in childbirth, and her death hangs like a shadow over his life, even four years later. From the introductory shot of him, Radcliffe immediately conveys Kipps as a melancholy figure, as he pushes a shaving razor up against his own throat, gazing into the mirror with a quiet despair. Where other films might resort to giving up this type of characterization through dialogue or other expository means, this single shot tells us everything we need to know about Kipps’ psychological state. Kipps is a lawyer, who is sent up to a remote town to settle the affairs of an equally creepy house, abandoned after a violent past. Of course, as his investigation begins, the creepiness truly sets in and it becomes clear that a supernatural presence haunts not just the house, but the entire surrounding village.

The Woman in Black admittedly offers little novelty to the haunted house genre, but its investment in plausibility as well as the plight of Kipps’ character makes it a worthwhile journey. What is most striking in this film is the exquisite photography, relying on a predictably desaturated and muted color palette for daytime exteriors, but making the most of chiaroscuro with interiors and night scenes. Although it becomes predictable that the ghostly lady for which the film is named is lurking in the dark corners of the frame, the compositions of those shots allow for the appropriate building of suspense during the right moments. The atmospheric strength of the film is evident throughout, and most felt during a nicely shot and cut scene as Kipps runs through the fog outside the house, under the impression of having seen someone outside. Most impressive outside the meticulous production design is the attention to the power of sound. It’s one thing to use atmospheric “booms” and “shrieks” to scare an audience, but The Woman in Black focuses instead on subtleties like the turning on of a faucet, the creaking of floorboards underneath a rocking chair, or the eerie mechanical sound of wind up toys. Again, these devices have existed in horror and suspense cinema since the advent of sound, but it is heartening to see them welcomed back in an age dominated by the blunt brute force of contemporary American horror. Ultimately, although The Woman in Black is strictly an homage and never really transcends its own trappings, it remains an engaging story featuring a nicely developed performance from Radcliffe, and impressive visual and aural cues to accompany all the bumps in the night.

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~ by romancinema on February 6, 2012.

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