Horror films both amaze me, and infuriate me. The good ones are completely nerve shredding and the bad ones cause fits of laughter. It is perhaps one of the most parodied genres of all time (Scream, Scary Movie et. al) thanks to its conventions being so overused and obvious, but it is also one of the most interesting in that treading the history of the genre correlates to societal fears at the time of release (e.g. one can see Ringu as a fear steeped not only in technology, but identity theft, as Sadako kills, leaving her victims almost unchanged, coupled with the need to copy the tape to pass the curse on induces the idea that she steals a persons soul and repeats the process). So where does The Woman in Black fit into this highly varied genre? Well, to put it simply, it’s in the bad pile - but not for a lack of trying.
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a man about to lose his job and his home. Working for a law firm, he leaves his young son to work on a job sorting out the plethora of legal documents left behind by an old woman in a big mansion in the middle of nowhere. Pretty standard set up, all delivered in a highly contrived and clunky piece of expositional writing that is so desperate to get on with the scares that it completely forgets the story. In the end, it just means that there is no characterisation and no concern as to what actually happens to Kipps - which dulls the scares quite a bit if you’re planning on putting him in jeopardy. What we actually have here is shoot-by-numbers horror film that stays so true to its gothic horror nature that it becomes predictable and trite - using generic shock tactics that pack all the punch of a soggy marshmallow.
Not that I’m against this kind of film. It can work when it’s done well, but most of the time that means not taking itself too seriously. Drag Me To Hell was a rollercoaster that had small sections of simple story punctuated by big jumpy set pieces that just had a lot of fun with the ridiculous story and just wanting to make the audience scream as much as possible. The main problem with The Woman in Black is that it takes itself way too seriously considering that it follows to a fault all the conventions of a ghost story without the actual story part to back it up. What it has ended up as is a film about a guy wondering around a haunted house and sometimes in the neighbouring town to encounter the strange townsfolk for an hour and a half. There is a story to be had, but it would rather get on with being scary than really get you involved in the world it creates.
So not only is The Woman in Black not a very good horror film, it also is not a very good film as a whole. There are a couple of scares that were effective, and it did show some promise, but its chopping and changing between the house and the neighbouring town isn’t handled very well in creating an overall atmosphere other than it being grey and miserable. This lack of atmosphere is not at all helped by the poor sound design. A horror film’s worth is largely based on a good sound design, whether it be signifying sounds that indicate something is wrong (the beeping of the scanner in Alien), a genuinely freaky sound that send shivers down your spine (the ‘click click click’ sound of The Grudge), or even the really subtle sounds that are grounded in reality (The House of the Devil does this for most of the film and it’s incredibly tense), anything lacking in the sound department can lead to change the mood entirely from something scary to something funny.
Thankfully The Woman in Black doesn’t stray too much into the ‘funny’ side of horror, but a better handling of it could have delivered something much better. But the things it really lacks are a point and a decent story. There is no particular fear that it addresses and nothing has been put in place to make you care about what happens to the characters. It tries to characterise a lot of people and as such ends up painting nothing more than caricatures and because it’s so confused between trying to scare you and trying to make you empathise with people it doesn’t have time to find a fear it’s trying to address.
So as a post Harry Potter vehicle for Radcliffe (I guess it had to be mentioned at some point), it’s hardly anything to write home about. It wasn’t the best casting choice (despite it being biologically possible, his baby face really doesn’t make him look like the father of a 4 year old), but it doesn’t really point to how well his career is going to go. A limited range of being either scared of confused doesn’t really allow him much room to prove himself, but I can’t deny he has this effortlessly likeable screen presence, meaning this film isn’t going to ruin him. But down the line, I don’t think he’ll be reminiscing about this outing to Eel Marsh if he ever picks up an Oscar.