When I read Stephen King’s The Shining, I was struck by the fact that I knew everything that was going to happen before it happened. I wondered whether it was possible to do anything new in the horror genre. (In his film adaptation of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick mostly made it into a psychological thriller.) Horror films in recent year s only seem to recycle ideas. The last movie that I found genuinely frightening was the 1998 Japanese horror film, Ring.
The Woman in Black is directed by James Watkins, from a screenplay by Jane Goldman, loosely based on the novel by Susan Hill. It covers familiar ground, but it tries to make up for it by being visually appealing.
The story is set in England during the Edwardian period. Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) , a solicitor from London, is sent to a small town on the English coast to settle the estate of a deceased widow. The townspeople are secretive and unfriendly. They not so subtly hint that Arthur should leave. They seem to know something he doesn’t. Unfazed, Arthur goes out to the widow’s house to look for legal papers. The place is called Eel Marsh Manor. (With a name like that, you know there’s going to be trouble). It is located on an island in the middle of a saltwater marsh. It can only be reached when the tide is low. The house is abandoned and surrounded by overgrown shrubbery. When Arthur searches the place, right away he hears strange noises. Through a window, he sees a woman dressed all in black. A lesser man would flee in such circumstances, but Arthur is staunch and fearless, albeit a little slow on the uptake. He is determined to get to the bottom of things.
Watkins has tried to make up for the script’s weaknesses by directing the film in stylish manner. The shots of the island and of the vast saltwater marsh are beautiful. Eel Marsh Manor has everything you could want in a haunted house. The sets were designed with loving attention to detail. Yet the film’s sumptuousness can’t hide the fact that we’ve been here before. Mysterious faces appear and disappear in windows. Doors seem to open and close by themselves. Wind-up toys suddenly start up. People suddenly speak in strange voices.
The Woman in Black will likely appeal to people who are nostalgic for old haunted house movies, but it doesn’t break any new ground.