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February 25, 2012

Woman In Black Review

The bad: You've seen it all before.

The good: Some things are just plain scary, no matter how many times you've seen 'em.

Three Stars.

The Woman in Black is comfort-food horror. Even though the point of horror is to make the audience feel unsettled and uneasy, the film is oddly comforting for feeling so familiar.

Imagine, off the top of your head, the things you might expect to see in a Victorian-era Gothic ghost story movie, and they're all here. Isolated, crumbling mansion in a remote location? Check. Local villagers who are strangely unfriendly and determined that the hero go away as quickly as possible? Check. Creepy old photographs? Check. Creepy mechanical toys and even creepier dolls? Check.

The rocking-chair-rocking-by-itself gag? Creepy children? Young lawyer sent on mission to isolated, creepy location? Suicide by hanging? Scary threats written in blood beneath the wallpaper? Exploration armed with candle and hatchet? Check check check check check.

Cliches? They're cliches only when they're misused. When they're used right, they're classics for a reason.

There's something just fun about a ghost story set turn-of-the-century England that wins a lot of immediate goodwill (like seeing old-timey trains chugging across the moors), and that goodwill is not strained, because within thirty minutes you're up to you eyeballs in serious scariness.

(An extra bit of goodwill got earned when I saw the "HAMMER" production credit- - apparently this is a (revived?) Hammer Studios effort. I doubt "Hammer Studios" existed, in the current age, as more than a zombie franchise brand-name to be bought by a new company, but seeing "HAMMER" on a horror film has a certain attraction for horror fans. In this case, it's very nice branding, because if there's going to be a British horror studio called Hammer this is the kind of film they should be doing.)

The plot is so simple and traditional it barely merits mention: A young lawyer named Arthur Kipps is still broken by the death of his wife, raising his four year old son alone. Apparently his prolonged grieving has cost him on the job, because his unpleasant and imposing boss (Roger Allam) tells him that he's about to be fired, but has one more chance to prove he's more to the firm than a mere "passenger." He'll have to travel to the north of England to a mansion in order to go through the paperwork of an old widow who just died, to ensure the draft of the will they're executing is in fact her final will.

Two trains later and he's in a cold, rainy hamlet, where the locals are tight-lipped and hostile to his presence -- we learn later there have been a number of deaths of their children through the past decade, and they think -- due to their Angry Villager superstitious ways-- that it has something to do with creepy and mouldering Eel Marsh Mansion. Let the dead lie with the dead and so forth.

Then he visits the house. And the haunting begins.

The mood is kept tense enough to keep an audience on edge without seeming slow or oppressive. Just tense enough that when you see that awful Woman in Black gliding in background, you groan.

The middle forty five minutes of this is nothing but one big scare after another. The ending is a let-down -- How do you actually confront a ghost, in the way a villain is typically confronted?

Physical weapons won't work. Psychological ploys might; drive the ghost crazy by confronting it with reminders of its death or past suffering. But that often comes off pretty silly (the remake of Haunting at Hill House had an especially unconvincing "kill the ghost with the power of love and joy" ending, IIRC).

Appeasement sometimes works, by performing an action it demands, and thus "setting it at peace." But then, the ghost actually profits in the exchange, which is its own kind of unsatisfying ending, especially here, where the ghost is a truly vile specimen who just needs killin'.

That leaves an exorcism, but an exorcism movie is its own subgenre with its own rules.

Anyway, as great as ghosts are as monsters in the first two acts-- you never really risk breaking the rules or physical laws because ghosts can teleport or make walls bleed at will -- they're a problem in the third act, the climax, for the same reasons. They can pretty much do anything. So what are you realistically going to do to "kill" them?

Moreso than with any ghosts I can remember, the Woman in Black is a particularly vile creature, and I wish they'd come up with a satisfying answer. (The girl in The Ring was pretty hateful, but she was, after all, a poor abused little girl.)

Still, that's just and ending. I came for classic scares in a creepy mansion and I more than got them. I will confess that I was groaning and occasionally shouting during the hauntings.

One guy in the theater was so tense that when the camera just glided by a black chair, he mistook it for the ghost, and cried out in alarm. Then the whole theater laughed at him, and he laughed too. It was, I think, a completely unintentional shot, not meant to trick or scare anyone, but this guy was apparently unnerved enough that he was gasping at furniture. So, that's pretty good.

Daniel Radcliffe is good. I think he underplays his reaction. The realistic reaction would be screaming like a lunatic and running for his life, which he doesn't do. Instead he just plays it tense the whole time. Occasionally startled.

Not really realistic, but it works, and maybe in some way his underplaying of reaction encourages the audience to overplay its own? Like we're making up for the "horror deficit" by adding our own? I don't know.

A lot of critics are saying he's "too young" for the role, as he's a widower and has a four year old kid. But he's actually 22. Did these guys ever read a history book? It is not at all out-of-the-ordinary that a guy at the turn of the century would be married and have an expectant wife at age 18. That would be standard practice.

One last thing: There is always the Don't go back into the house, you Moron thing in these movies. I did have this thought a bunch of times, but only during the second haunting.

The first time he's haunted, it's creepy and scary but it's still just suggestive of a haunting; he hasn't seen conclusive evidence of it. At that point, you don't think he's insane to stay. Just maybe... reckless.

The third time, the last time, he must confront the ghost, due to a personal threat to himself and his boy. So I can give a pass on that one. Not insane here, either; just more heroic than your average paper-pusher.

It's the second haunting, the middle one, where the Hey idiot? Run! thought pops into your head. At that point in the film, there is no critical need to confront the ghost, and he does, in this section, get unambiguous proof that not only is there a ghost, but it's a really scary, insane, murderous ghost.

And he goes back inside anyway. Why? I have no idea. I guess because he really has to look over those documents or he'll lose his job. But I would suggest that with a Lunatic Murder Ghost coming after you every half hour, you're probably not going to be very productive with the paperwork.

It did occur to me that if the film were to be taken seriously, this character has Severely Large Balls, stalking through a ghost's lair armed with a hatchet and a candle. Eh, I kind of liked that. Doesn't make sense, really, but can't fault a guy for being too intrepid.

I really liked this. Just plain fun and scary and well-done all around. Except for the ending. I'll deduct a star for that, but it's a very worthy and fun ghost story anyway.

Oh, I have to give a Content Warning. The film's plot involves some very unsettling material which some people especially might decide makes this unwatchable. There is no language, nudity, sex, or other stuff in the movie, and in fact almost no actual violence. However, the main plot -- the ghost's viciousness -- involves something pretty nasty. It's a spolier, so scroll over it to see the white font warning.

The ghost beguiles children -- not adults, children -- into committing suicide. Three or four of these are shown, briefly, mostly suggestively. Not super-graphically, but enough to make the point. More are alluded to. It's a nasty business, which is partly why I hate this ghost so much.

A less spoiler-ish warning is this:

I know a lot of people absolutely loathe films featuring children in danger. This film has a good deal of child endangerment. If children-in-danger puts you off a film, definitely skip this one.

Not For Kids: Because Harry Potter's in it, and it's PG-13, parents might get the sense that this will be okay for 12 year olds.

It's not. It's a very horrific, morbid, scary movie, featuring, as I said, some grim material involving children. It's for older teenagers and adults.

The PG-13 rating is misleading. It doesn't have the typical red flags of an R-rated movie. And I guess you can't give someone an R for mood and tone and pervasive morbidity.

So they got a PG-13.

But it's really an "R" movie, as far as kids.

This is a problem with the ratings system. Total Recall has graphic violence, language, and nudity, so it's R-rated, but let's face it, it's cartoonish (fun, but cartoonish) and is going to have next to zero impact on a kid.

On the other hand, this movie doesn't have those things, and is going to cause nightmares.

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posted by Ace at 04:52 PM

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