Woman in Black: Hammer Tradition

“The Woman in Black” marks an admirable attempt to revive the revered Hammer name, as in Hammer Film Productions, birthplace of a galaxy of sexy, often silly, and sometimes classic horror movies from the 1950s through the 1970s.

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But this new Hammer is not really the same company: a whole new corporate team has assembled around former cable TV executive Simon Oakes. They have bought the old name and announced their strong intention to recapture the spirit, starting with this film.

What better way to reboot Hammer than with a no-frills haunted house picture? Add Daniel Radcliffe as the star—in his first major post–”Harry Potter” role—and the new Hammer already has its potential first hit on its hands.

“The Woman in Black” turns out to be a solid but not-so-special piece of Hammeresque craftsmanship. It does not disappoint much, nor does it exceed any reasonable expectations. That certain Hammer wildness may be missing, but this movie is fun enough.

The film takes its sweet time, steadily establishing its atmospherics as it follows struggling widower/lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) in his faceoff with a lady ghost (Liz White) in a decrepit, isolated mansion in Northern England.

The Northern England of “A Woman in Black” is populated with creepy kids who, when not coughing up blood or setting themselves on fire, stare quietly and menacingly from the windows of nearly every home. One wonders if there is a greater number of dead or living children active in Kipps’s destination village, Crythin Gifford.

The young lawyer is there to put a deceased woman’s papers in order and unexpectedly winds up spending most of his time trying to straighten out the lady in black and a gang of ghost kids on the loose. It turns out to be a lifechanging experience for Kipps, to say the least.

The lead ghost is still hanging around the place, which is conveniently stocked with mildly disturbing children’s toys (in fact, the whole town is), because she lost a child there and is now using the house as her base of operations for taking out revenge on everyone else’s kids—including, she hopes, Kipps’s own beloved son, the adorable Joseph (Misha Handley).

How scary is this movie? And is Radcliffe ready to do some actorly growing up?

Audiences will need to meet the filmmakers halfway if they really want to be frightened by “The Woman in Black.” This movie’s haunted mansion, as dark, twisted, and stylish as it is, has been done to death in a million other movies. By now, most everyone knows the basic floor plan; this pictures does not add much that is new.

In fact, a lot of humor in the film is generated from the audience’s overfamiliarity with exactly what goes on in a house like this.

A long, dialogue-free sequence with ghosts tormenting Kipps overnight in the mansion starts to feel a bit random. “The Woman in Black” asks audiences for a lot of “Watch out behind you!” and “Don’t open that door!” and “Wait, where did the dog go?”

Radcliffe sticks out as a drawback: he is too much of a ghost himself—too much of a well-coifed, babyfaced, amicable sort of ghost. He does not convey the inner turmoil that makes for a satisfying horror hero; there need to be real demons inside and out to reach that level.

Neverthrless, the film’s machinelike approach—for the most part tight work by director James Watkins (“Eden Lake”) and screenwriter Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class”)—keeps Radcliffe’s airy performance from stopping the almost-scary fun to be had.

Despite its laughable conclusion, “The Woman in Black” will no doubt leave audiences eager for more Hammer Version 2.0.

Cast

Arthur Kipps – Daniel Radcliffe

Joseph Kipps – Misha Handley

Mr. Bentley – Roger Allam

Daily – Ciaran Hinds

Mrs. Daily – Janet McTeer

Fisher – Shaun Dooley

Mrs. Fisher – Mary Stockley

Mr. Jerome – Tim McMullan

Jennet – Liz White

Nathanial Drablow – Ashley Foster

Stella Kipps – Sophie Stuckey

Credits

A CBS Films release.

Directed by James Watkins.

Written by Jane Goldman.

Produced by Richard Jackson, Simon Oakes, and Brian Oliver.

Cinematography, Tim Maurice-Jones.

Editing, Jon Harris.

Original Music, Marco Beltrami.

Running time: 95 minutes.