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Pale Shadows

by Ross Douthat

A review of The Woman in Black

Last issue, I sang the praises of Contraband, an unassuming but well-crafted piece of genre entertainment. I was hoping to do the same this time with The Woman in Black, a haunted-house flick deliberately designed to evoke the glory days of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. (Its production company is Hammer Films, a relaunch of the famous monster-movie studio of yore.)

This is a movie that meticulously checks off every gothic box: creaking floorboards, vine-draped houses, mysterious fog banks, surly locals, and a hero with a secret sorrow in his heart. The filmmakers aim to frighten the old-fashioned way, with suggestion as much as special effects, and with atmosphere rather than gore. It’s an admirable ambition; I only wish they’d had the imagination to quite pull it off.

The star is Daniel Radcliffe, sticking with England and the supernatural in his first post–Harry Potter turn. He plays Arthur Kipps, a pallid London lawyer in mourning for a wife who died in childbirth, who’s dispatched by his firm to the seaside (or rather, marsh-side) town of Crythin Gifford to sort through the paperwork left behind by the late owner of a crumbling mansion called Eel Marsh House.

With a name like that, you won’t be surprised that the villagers regard the house as a place of ill omen, and do everything in their power to steer the indefatigable Kipps away from it. (There’s no room at the inn, the local solicitor claims to have already done all the paperwork, etc.) Fortunately — or unfortunately, as the case may be — Kipps meets an ally on the train, a bluff and forceful local landowner named Samuel Daily (Ciarán Hinds), who combines the rich man’s contempt for the superstitions of the lower orders with the Protestant Christian’s suspicion of ghost stories of all stripes. With Daily and his motor car as backup, our hero begins his legal excavations at the house — and soon adds other excavations as well, which reveal secrets darker than anything a career in the Probate Court prepared him for.

Those secrets, it turns out, have something to do with the ghostly black-clad woman who keeps being spotted on the grounds of the house, something to do with a long-ago night when the mire around Eel Marsh House enveloped a carriage and the child it carried, and something to do with the children who have been dying, in fashions mysterious and gruesome, in Crythin Gifford and its environs ever since. One of the dead children belongs to Daily and his wife (Janet McTeer, grand and wild-haired), and while the husband has retreated into a mix of rationalism and religion, his spouse has become a full-fledged spiritualist, producing automatic writing that supposedly channels the spirit of her son. I am not giving anything away, I suspect, when I say that it’s Mrs. Daily’s instincts rather than her husband’s that get closer to the truth.

The trouble is that this truth, after being patiently withheld for the first half of the movie’s running time, comes out too quickly in the second half. In haunted-house movies, it’s the unseen that spooks and the almost-seen that terrifies, and one glassy-eyed doll or grinning toy monkey is worth a hundred direct shots of the ghosts themselves. But at a certain point — when Kipps stays overnight in Eel Marsh House, with only Daily’s dog for company — The Woman in Black abandons this rule and just shows and shows and shows. This rush of supernatural emanations comes too early and covers too much ground, and after that the filmmakers don’t have enough surprises left — though there is a last, somewhat cheap one in the dénouement.

Many great ghost stories traffic in a deliberate ambiguity about the realness of their phantoms. Others make no bones (so to speak) about their ghosts’ reality, but then find a second card to play, a second twist that complicates what we think we know about the nature of the haunting. (The obvious example of the first sort of story is The Turn of the Screw; some recent examples of the second sort include The Sixth Sense, The Others, and The Ring.)

Once The Woman in Black makes it thumpingly clear that all its ghosts are real, the audience is left waiting for that twist or unexpected card — some new information about the unhappy inhabitants of Crythin Gifford, some sudden revelation about Mr. Daily’s motivations, or some wrinkle in Kipps’s personal story that would link his mourning more directly to the fog of parental grief that envelops his coastal destination.

Instead, what you see is what you get. And because this is a film that lets you see too much too soon, it’s ultimately less scary and less surprising than the neat little ghost story it could have been.

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