I’ve been around the block with horror. I’ve seen it at its very best across more years than I care to announce from Hitchcock’s psychological battering as a kid, across the board to supposed modern day American fright-fests which, let’s face it, are schlocky contraptions designed to bring in the green rather than be faithful to the art people like Polanski built a foundation for.
I’d like to go on record. The Yanks are more than sub-standard when it comes to frightening the holy crap out of you on screen. It’s all far too shallow and obvious for my liking. Name me an American great and I’ll show you something from Europe that will pound it to the ground. If you want bizarre, take in The Wicker Man, if you want a classic hunt down The Haunting from ’63 (although granted Wise is an American director before you start a war). Want to come up to date, then surely del Toro is the undisputed master. The Orphanage has got it all.
Which brings us to The Woman in Black. A superbly crafted book from Susan Hill that puts Henry James firmly back in his box, everybody should read it. In fact, it should be compulsory at school as far as I’m concerned. Though if I’m being honest, her not-so-well-known tale The Small Hand is far superior in every way, but I digress.
The Woman in Black is a superb piece of movie-making. More important than being excellent for its own sake, it has also put Hammer back on the map – and dear Lord, that’s been a long time coming. Do not take its 12A certificate for granted, for that is a sharp double-edged sword you hold there. Sure, there’s nothing graphic here to worry your kids in the way of blood and gore, but man, if you want to screw them up with some real long-term psychological damage in the dark, this is the very film to come see.
There were a couple of kids behind me (lured in no doubt by Mr Radcliffe) who actually whispered to their parents that they wanted to go home because it was “way too scary”. Their parents however, pleasingly ignored their plight having themselves stumbled upon a rather unexpected piece of killer film-making. You can’t buy that sort of PR. We’re talking Exorcist levels of word of mouth here – and it will work because there isn’t anything to actually describe. Allow me to elaborate:
Much like the previously mentioned The Haunting, nothing really happens – hell, if you strung all the dialogue together it would probably come to less than 15 minutes of scripting. It’s what happens when there’s nothing happening that totally owns this film. There is a lot of dark space to fill and it’s filled with haunting incidental music, gorgeous location set pieces and more than any of this, director James Watkins understands how to make a handful of Victorian toys and a whole lot of shadows do all the work for you at a fraction of the price of a ton of SFX – of which I may add, there is none in this movie.
The Woman in Black is simply a beautiful, beautiful piece of work. On the downside, if you read and loved the book, the ending may come as something of a minor anti-climax – a little part of me is hoping that if there is one, it will surface on a director’s cut in the future. Had they stuck to the simple genius ending of the book, this would easily make it into the top three horror movies of all time. If you haven’t read the book – maybe it will make it that far anyway.
A true gothic masterpiece from the homeland. It doesn’t get much better than this.