There’s something wonderful about seeing the Hammer logo again. Its adjusted look, which celebrates its rich heritage of b-movies and horror before solidifying into a blood red bit of typographical mastery, gets the feeling of their return just right.
It’s especially good to see it in front of a well-made film like The Woman in Black, the new gothic horror film released by the fabled production company.
After successfully remaking the Swedish film, Let the Right One In as ‘Let Me In’ (a practice that extends back to the beginning of Hammer, when they were essentially remaking the Universal horror pictures of two decades prior), The Woman in Black is a clear sign that the production company is taking another step in the right direction towards reestablishing itself.
The tale is a classic ghost story with nary a cynical or pretentious bone in it’s body. It does not wink at the audience and it certainly isn’t interested in making you laugh, unless it is for release. All it wants to do is scare you and, if you’re like me, your hackles will be raised.
It’s a film that goes for a more traditional feel than most modern horror films that simply rack up body counts and pile on gore to the point of self-satire. While that might often be fun, and is certainly an improvement over the hopefully short-lived torture porn boom, it should hardly be the only game in town. Woman is the first film of it’s type I can think of off-hand since Nicole Kidman’s The Others quite a few years ago. But this one does not rely on a Twilight Zone twist ending for its story to work, for better or worse. The only other recent film approaching its ilk is last year’s release Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. They both have creepy houses filled with even creepier things. I still have yet to understand why in the Victorian era, humanity lost all sense of what was horrifying and decided to mass produce the most disturbing things possible for the express purpose of putting them in children’s bedrooms.
Like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, it manages to be scary through the use of camera work, atmosphere and a general foreboding that sneaks in from every corner of the screen. Sneak being the optimal word, in this case. At times, the film seems to be like a sibling that’s constantly trying to hide everywhere in the house in order to jump out and scare you and there comes a point where the viewer has to decide whether or not to come aboard and enjoy the game of hide and seek that’s happening. For some of the supposed sophisticated set, who find the wind-up brick-a-brack populating the crumbling mansion more silly than creepy, it may be harder to do. There is little explicit gore here. (Not that there isn’t at least one scene that would likely have caused an uproar a few decades ago.) There isn’t any cracking wise by the hero. Just a house with sounds coming from every direction, looking like everything can come to life at any second. You almost think its statues will start breaking out in a chorus of “Grim Grinning Ghosts.” Oh, and there is a boatload of sideways child endangerment, so it’s fun for the whole family.
In many ways, this is a good follow-up to the Harry Potter films by Radcliffe, who seemed to be staking a claim purely in theater between their chapters. He plays a widowed lawyer, long suffering from depression, who is given a choice to either follow-up on the estate papers of a deceased woman, or be let go from his law firm. In their eyes, the four years following his wife’s death have been quite long enough for him to pull himself up by his bootstraps and he’s given what had to look like an easy assignment on paper. Of course, the house turns out to be an isolated nightmare named “Eel Marsh,” made even more solitary by it being cut off from the mainland when the tide is high. Radcliffe plays the part surprisingly well given his relative youth, with a hollow-eyed somber to him. Somehow finding out he was a borderline alkie at the end of the Harry Potter series only helps.
The rest of the cast is good, but given little to do. It truly is a film that stars Radcliffe and a piece of real estate. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, though I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing it get some consideration for its set design and sound work come awards season next year. What it is is a solid little film that helps buck the trend of bad movies coming out this time of year. We can all welcome that.
(Three and a half out of five stars.)