Caution: This review may contain some spoilers.
I’m notoriously hard to scare. There are very few films that make me jump, check under my bed when I get home or merely keep me awake for a couple of nights. However, The Woman in Black, based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, contains copious amounts of two of the three things that scare me the most; mirrors and creepy children (the third thing is the Ku Klux Klan and thankfully their pointed heads did not feature in this film, as otherwise I imagine I’d have needed medical attention).
The film comes out of legendary horror studio Hammer, and it definitely doesn’t let the studio’s history down. This film reminds it’s audience (and the industry) what horror films should be about. In the wake of the success of Scream in the early 1990s, too many horror films these days go for the all out blood bath and crazed psychopath angle. While these films aim at being ‘more human’ or ‘more believable’, they skimp massively on one of the fundamental rules of horror: the creep factor. It’s something that films like Paranormal Activity have vaguely picked up on, but ultimately still haven’t utilised enough. This can’t be said of The Woman in Black however. The creep factor comes at you full force right from the very opening of the film. Three little girls, harmlessly playing with their dolls, all suddenly slip into a trance and progress to throw themselves out of a window. It’s the synchronism of the three girls that really puts the viewer on edge. There is something inherently disturbing about children in trances, all acting and moving together in an act of pure madness, seemingly under the influence of some unseen power. And from here, dear reader, it only gets creepier.
Unlike many horror films The Woman in Black isn’t working towards a big reveal. The premise of the story works on the grounds that if someone sees the eponymous Woman in Black on the marshes or in the grounds of Eel Marsh House, a child in the village will die in tragic circumstances. This of course means that the big bad has to be revealed right at the beginning, which somehow works to ramp up the creep factor even though you know what lurks in the corner of your eye. It is unsuspecting solicitor Arthur Kipps (played somewhat brilliantly by Daniel Radcliffe) that glimpses said figure on his maiden visit to Eel Marsh House, where he has been sent to finalise the paperwork of the late Alice Drablow. Just as Kipps is attempting to report his sighting to the local police, a girl enters the police station having just drunk lye (caustic sodium hydroxide) and dies in Kipps’ arms. From here on the Woman in Black strikes several more times and the audience finds itself constantly thinking every shadow and trick of the light is the evil spectre herself. It creates a constant atmosphere of fear in the film, and you may even find yourself jumping out of your seat at something as innocent as a man entering a room (true story).
The scenes set in Eel Marsh House in particular are utterly terrifying. The house itself is perhaps even more creepy than the Woman that haunts it. It is FULL of mirrors, a fact that didn’t sit well with me. Mirrors play tricks on the eyes and there is a constant dread that anything might appear just behind you (this is a deep seated terror that may not effect many others but it had me nearly crawling up the walls with fear). Of course the house is also ridiculously dark and is filled with the most disturbing looking children’s toys you can find, all of which helpfully like to come to life randomly. Chuck in a dozen or so creepy ghost children inhabiting the gardens outside and you’ve got a sure fire way of getting me as close to fear tears as you’ll probably ever see.
What particularly makes this film so spectacularly scary is the fact that Daniel Radcliffe can actually act! I was fully expecting young DanRad to merely be Harry Potter tarted up in some Victorian gear and stuck in the Shrieking Shack for 93 minutes. Thankfully his portrayal of tragic Mr Kipps is spot on. It’s a role that many said an older actor would struggle with, but I guess all that time spent in Helena Bonham Carter’s presence has taught the lad what being scared really is.
Needless to say, many factors come together to make this film a tour de force of creep. Of course it does take a willingness to suspend reality to really have an effect on you, but it definitely does it’s best to suck you in so far that you find yourself buying into the whole story without even really meaning to. The Woman in Black plays unashamedly on that childhood fear of the unknown; that shadow that you think you see out of the corner of your eye or those creaks you hear as ghostly footsteps. I personally think more horror films should seek to emulate Hammer’s latest film. I think I’ve had my fill of living human psychopaths; reality is scary but the things the go bump in the night will always have the edge. After all, you never know what could be waiting in the deepest, darkest of places. Some people will watch this film and think ‘how ridiculous, it could never happen.’ But I defy even the biggest of sceptics to not jump at least once during this film. This film is an absolute masterclass in how to create an atmosphere of pure and constant creepiness.
(And I will definitely be going to see the play next time I’m in London…. Yep, I’m such a creep junky)