“The Woman in Black” opens on three ceramic-skinned girls throwing a tea party. They pour the imaginary tea without a word, their action accompanied by tinkling, malevolent chimes. Then something catches their eyes. They rise together, open the attic window and jump out in graceful slow-mo.
This apparently isn’t dramatic enough by itself. The camera lingers on the window, and outside we hear the girls’ mother shrieking, “Noooooooo!!! My baaabbbiiessss!”
The film makes sure we never forget the mood of this first scene. A statuesque, overwrought Gothic overture pervades “The Woman in Black,” a blue pallor that matters more than the characters, story or any sense of horror. It has all the authenticity and narrative momentum of a 19th-century family photo.
Daniel Radcliffe, attempting to kill his Harry Potter image for good, plays Arthur Kipps, a solicitor sent to handle a deceased widow’s estate. He’s very, very sad, we understand. His wife died during childbirth, and his son always draws him with a frown.
Like the estate in question: a very unwelcoming locale, miles away from the nearest town and separated by marshland. The only road leading to it is flooded by high tide, and the building itself would send shivers down Poe’s spine. Its symmetrical, ornate structure advertises a good haunting, like a ghost boarding house.
The town Arthur stays at has reason to fear the building. Since its owner’s son drowned in the marshes, their children have been dying en masse. Often a woman dressed in dark funeral garb accompanies these freak accidents, and Arthur’s investigations lead him to the heart of this mysterious female specter.
Or they sort of do. See, the film abandons all notion of plot halfway through, recovering the narrative only long enough to deliver an asinine, thoroughly stupid dénouement. Otherwise, once Arthur chooses to spend a night in the house, “The Woman in Black” turns into a more sophisticated “The Grudge,” or “Paranormal Activity” if it were a period piece.
The titular ghost unravels as a giant, spiteful question mark. We learn her intentions but not her essence. Her actions follow no illuminating pattern that could give us insight into her character, instead following the formula of every other supernatural force in movies. She rattles doorknobs, creeps from a distance, pushes rocking chairs and materializes in mirrors while characters’ backs are turned.
Director James Watkins dutifully upholds the tempo of the average horror flick: a short, silent build-up, punctuated by quick movement and a loud, sudden “BWAM!” in the orchestration. It’ll make you jump, yes, but it grows old quickly.
Radcliffe is a poor fit for this material as well. He’s a fine actor who deserves a long, fruitful career, but at age 22 he has none of the experience to portray a broken, weary man, not like Liam Neeson did in “The Grey.” I was never convinced that he was a widower or professional man.
When faced with unholy terror, Radcliffe packs enough pluck and British calm to defuse our investment in his plight. Arthur deserves an older actor, someone wearier and more haggard — costar Ciarán Hinds, perhaps, a fellow Potter graduate who plays Arthur’s skeptical friend Sam with true gravitas.
All these points considered, I still don’t regret seeing “The Woman in Black.” Its cool, Gothic cinematography is pretty at least, and there are enough unintentional laughs to nudge the film into minor camp territory. If you want a good, paranormal freak fest, though, I recommend “The Shining,” “1408,” “Insidious” … even the fairly average “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” delivers more substance and sturdy thrills than “The Woman in Black” imagines it can.