Its premise is horrifying in concept — a tormented spirit compels children to their deaths — but The Woman in Black is content to be very old-fashioned in its ambition and execution. In lieu of gore, the movie plays on our primal fear of things that go bump in the night.
Director James Watkins delivers a compendium of Gothic horror movie cliches — mysterious noises that must be investigated, jump scares accompanied by violin shrieks, and specters that appear and then promptly disappear for no reason.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as Arthur Kipps, a young barrister in early-20th-century London. Possessed of a sickly pallor, Kipps is also a single father and widower whose wife died during childbirth. Her death has left him so melancholy, his 4-year-old son draws him wearing a sad face.
For his latest assignment, Kipps travels to a village to handle the affairs of a deceased woman who lived in a remote mansion known as Eel Marsh. To access the fog-shrouded manor, Kipps must navigate a long, narrow road that isn’t passable when the tide comes in.
Radcliffe (the Harry Potter series), does well looking tormented and concerned, but his is a role that should have gone to an older actor. The film could have plumbed some interesting psychological depths had a woman been cast, creating tension with the vengeful mother of the title mercilessly persecuting the village. (Why the villagers stay there is the film’s biggest mystery.)
From just shortly after Kipps’ arrival, it’s clear he’s not welcome. Director Watkins moves his camera slowly past the fearful gazes that follow Kipps’ bewildered stare as he passes.
The one person who befriends Kipps is Samuel Daily (Ciarán Hinds), whose son drowned at a young age. He’s also the only villager wealthy enough to own a car (a plot point that later figures prominently). Unlike the other townsfolk, Daily doesn’t believe in a supernatural force behind the deaths. His wife (Janet McTeer), however, appears to have a psychic connection with her.
The Woman in Black has plenty of atmosphere, but the scares come cheap. Instead of plumbing the depths of psychological terror, it is the cinematic equivalent of a mildly frightening haunted house, one that repeatedly subjects its protagonist to possessed toys, encroaching shadows and lurking wraiths.