Halfway through The Woman in Black comes a long sequence — at least 15 minutes, possibly more — in which Daniel Radcliffe spends a night alone inside a haunted house. Doors slam shut. Inanimate objects move ever so slightly. Dark corners seem to harbor monsters. Mostly, though, director James Watkins (Eden Lake) resorts to loud stingers and noises on the soundtrack to frighten you. This movie must set some sort of record for the number of times in which the musical score suddenly BLASTS from the speakers, jolting you out of your chair. Watkins also leans heavily on that old gotcha! of having characters suddenly walk into the frame, asking the startled hero “Is everything OK?” I kept hoping Radcliffe would turn around and say “No, everything is not OK. Stop creeping up on me like that!”
Just about the only trick The Woman in Black doesn’t resort to is The Screaming Cat That Jumps Out of Nowhere, although there is a pesky crow fond of cawing suddenly and often in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. This is the latest movie produced by the legendary Hammer Film Productions, the famed British company that cranked out gothic chillers in the 1960s, many of them starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and was recently revived by new investors (they also released 2010’s Let Me In). The Woman in Black, which is based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel about a ghost that entrances the children of a small remote village to kill themselves, is bound to be described as “old-fashioned,” because it’s big on shadows and cobwebs and rolling fog.
But the movie cribs its biggest scares from contemporary Japanese horror pictures such as Ring and The Grudge, with their reliance on ghostly apparitions and fleeting, shocking images. The Woman in Black has a determinedly modern sensibility; its old-school aura is used strictly for decoration. Based on a thoroughly humorless script by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class), the movie plops us into the same bewildered confusion felt by Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), a young attorney in Victorian-era England who travels to a remote village to settle the legal affairs of a recently-deceased woman.
Poring over her documents and letters, Kipps deduces the woman was angry over the death of her young son, whose body was never recovered. The locals (including Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer) prefer not to speak of her. But they don’t seem to be entirely on the up-and-up: The rash of ghastly suicides being committed by the kids in town would make anyone act a little weird.
Although the first half of The Woman in Black seems to be setting up a meaty mystery with a supernatural center, the movie’s second half reveals there’s practically nothing going on here except subtle special-effects work and appearances by spirits who can never interact with the physical world, so they pose no threat whatsoever. What’s a horror movie without a sense of menace? This story is so slight, it would have fit neatly into the span of a 30-minute Twilight Zone episode. The final twist, too, might have earned Rod Serling’s approval, if it were not for its bathetic uplift and for the fact you can spot it coming like a steam locomotive chugging toward the station.
In his first starring role post-Harry Potter, Radcliffe must carry the movie with little dialogue and practically nothing to play other than fear, constantly reacting to creepy toys that suddenly spring to life and reflections in windows that shriek unexpectedly at him. Radcliffe is a fine actor who has proven his chops on the stage, and his next role — playing Allen Ginsberg in the upcoming Beat-generation drama Kill Your Darlings — will make better use of his talents. All he’s given to do in The Woman in Black is to look scared. Too bad that feeling never spills over onto the audience.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer.
Director: James Watkins.
Screenwriter: Jane Goldman. Based on the novel by Susan Hill.
Producers: Richard Jackson, Simon Oakes, Brian Oliver.
A CBS Films release. Running time: 95 minutes. Frightening imagery, including dead children. Opens Friday Feb. 3 at area theaters.