I remember the first film version of “The Woman in Black.” It scared me as thoroughly as something seen on weeknight A&E, studded with promos for Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes and MCI vs. Sprint ads, might. And then I forgot about it for about 20 years.
I think I’m a little unique as a ghost story consumer, because I absolutely savor what I call “the domino setting upping,” the long, slow drive up to the Overlook, the unpacking in the new house, the stupid kids getting lost in the woods on the first day of filming. Usually the rules of the haunting are herein defined as well, sort of the filmic equivalent of the flight attendant instructing you about exits and tray tables. It’s possible to overdo the domino setting upping — see every miniseries harvested from Stephen King’s body of work — but a good ghost story requires at least minimal attention to this phase of the story. Really successful ghost stories will use the 20 or 30 minutes spent here to subvert audience expectations and invigorate scares for the rest of the film, and when all the dominos fall, it will be exceptionally satisfying for all the deliberate architecture spent in the setting up phase.
“The Woman in Black” is a movie that you might characterize as lavishing too much time on the domino setting upping. I would argue that for all the time in the first half of the film spent on rolling around in mood and gorgeous, bleak scenery, it doesn’t really get much done in terms of establishing the rules of the haunting. It’s just really slow, slow like movies used to be before audiences had expectations, slow like movies are when they don’t have the budget for much more than a room with a view. Radcliffe does a lot of heavy lifting keeping the audience engaged through the first half, because he’s really very much on his own here. Just Harry, a turgid, bubbling moor, and a vague sense of expectation.
The second half of the movie though — whoa, hey. If you’re a fan of Japanese horror films like “Ju-On,” “Ringu,” or their American remakes, boy, oh, boy, you will love the second half of this movie. There were at least two scenes I recognized from “The Grudge,” and of course, most of the shock and horror derives from the kinds of scares those movies do so incomparably — the almost off-camera glimpse of a ghostly face, a forlorn shape separating from the shadows, the sudden discovery of a wraith kissing close to our protagonist. Once “The Woman in Black” gets going, it goes at full tilt until the end.
“The Woman in Black” represents a fitting return to form for England’s infamous Hammer studios, responsible for some of the 20th century’s best terrible misuses of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in similar costumed horror fare. It’s not exactly a successful movie on its own; too slow, too vacuous, too dependent on Radcliffe for too long. But perhaps I’m being too harsh. It does ultimately deliver, and if you do take the time for the first half, you won’t be let down by the end. That’s pretty much the polar opposite of my experience with most movies I’ve seen in the last year. And unlike the original movie version, I don’t think some of those scenes will be so quick to fade from memory, with or without commercial interruption.
Verdict: Go, see. And get all your bathroom going done before he spends the night in the house.