Some years back in 2007, I got wind that the once-mighty Hammer Film Productions was returning to action after decades of dormancy. However, I was somewhat let down when I looked into the matter and found that their first release would be a thoroughly modern affair called Beyond the Rave, and that the newly revived studio was looking to break away from its classic period roots and focus on contemporary horror. Which is sort of like if the Hal Roach Studio was revived to make American Pie sequels.
And so, after a couple of such modern thrillers, and even involvement in the well-made yet wrong-headed American remake of Let the Right One In, imagine my thrill to find that Hammer was at last truly returning--that is, going back to what it does best: Producing atmospheric British period horror. In the grand tradition of the studio that gave us Horror of Dracula, The Gorgon, Paranoiac, The Hound of the Baskervilles and countless others comes James Watkins' The Woman in Black, starring Daniel "Don't Call Me Harry" Radcliffe.
Folks, *this* is the true return of Hammer. This is what we've been waiting for. And just like that, we have a film that will very likely be in the running for the best horror film of 2012. Who would've imagined that a well-made, carefully shot gothic haunted house film with minimal gore and largely psychological scares could ever get made in this day and age of torture porn, quick cuts, gratuitous grue and lame post-post-modern slasher nonsense? Having just seen it, I'd put The Woman in Black right up there with such classics of the subgenre as The Haunting and The Uninvited.
Last Tuesday evening, joined by the lovely Captain Cruella, I decided it was time to go and see this film that I heard so much about. I also made the possibly imprudent decision of taking along my little Vaultlings Zombelina and Skeleton Jack. Sure, they had school the next day, and spent most of the night scared witless in bed. But that's what comes with the territory when you're the spawn of the Vault Keeper, people. At their age, I was shivering in bed after seeing Hammer's Lust for a Vampire on WWOR Channel 9, so I suppose the whole affair lends a certain comforting air of continuity. Anyway, they got over it the next day, and we all had a hell of a time howling, shaking and yelping in our theater seats at every chilling moment.
Yes, there are jump scares, which I'm really not much of a fan of. It seems that is an inescapable de rigeur element of the modern-day fright flick, sadly. Nevertheless, jump scares aside, this is one bone-rattling, good-old-fashioned blood-curdling ghost chiller, and just what the horror genre needed right now. British-born Watkins, whose previous effort was the vastly different torture thriller Eden Lake, sure knows how to build terror and craft an atmosphere of growing dread. If you love a good ghost story and you're a little jaded at the inability of most horror pictures' to genuinely get under your skin, then this one is for you.
Based on a 1970s novel by Susan Hill which had previously been successfully turned into both a TV movie and a touring stage production, The Woman in Black tells the tale of a mysterious abandoned mansion on a tiny island off the coast of Britain, apparently haunted by a malicious female spirit which targets innocent children. Radcliffe does a solid job portraying the poor solicitor who is assigned the unenviable task of closing up the estate, all while slowly discovering the house's evil history and the nature of the supernatural presence within.
X-Men: First Class and Kick-Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman takes a break from superheroes to give us a script that effectively holds the viewer's attention while not resorting to short-attention-span theater and silly gimmicks. It's a slow burn, but so worth the ride. There are not a lot of fireworks until we head toward the final act, but I was so engrossed watching everything carefully unfold that I didn't mind one bit. Imagine, shots that last more than five seconds! This is a welcome return to measured horror film-making.
Radcliffe does well in his first big-boy role, but the one who really steals the show here is the always-excellent Ciaran Hinds as the skeptical local who befriends Radcliffe but refuses to believe there is anything going bump in the night in that old dark house--despite the fact that the titular specter is possibly responsible for his own young son's demise. As all great actors do, Hinds makes the most of a simply written character to give us a textured, understated, anchor of a performance.
But just like most of the Hammer gems, the film's greatest power is derived from the way the actors are filmed and the surroundings in which they're placed. Gorgeously shot by the edgy Tim Maurice-Jones, the film makes the most of its setting, so that the Welsh landscape and most importantly the house become characters in themselves. And although the excessive use of digital filters can be a bit off-putting at first, in the end I felt it helped add to the otherworldliness--lending a cold, washed-out aura to the characters and their world. Not to mention that the actual Woman in Black herself is one truly frightening creation, and the crew at London effects house Union VFX deserves kudos for her creation and the many other scares they helped generate.
And although we're talking slow build here, it all pays off in a haunted extravaganza at the very end, which finds our protagonist trapped alone in the house, face-to-face with the evil that lurks there. This is a kind of horror that we rarely see in the cinema anymore, and to be honest, even some of the great Hammer efforts of days gone by lacked the budget to pull this kind of stuff off as well. The hair danced on the back of my neck, a knot took shape in my stomach, and I'm not ashamed to say at one point I clutched my ten-year-old daughter and uttered a mild blasphemy that caused her to spiral into a serious fit of the giggles. In short, the movie did its job.
For fans of classic horror who also enjoy the contemporary stuff and sit and wait for those really special ones to come along, this is one of those. The Woman in Black is a genuinely creepy, well-written, evocatively shot horror film. It kept my kids up through the night, and don't be surprised if it does the same to you. I'm proud to say that about five years after the actual studio revived itself--at long last, Hammer Films is truly back.
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