The Woman in Black (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
The epochs of classic creature features and splatter fests have gradually given way to a contemporary horror film genre shaped by Asian influences and, more notably, the trappings of today's technology. Starting with Hideo Nakata's Ringu — a convenient, affecting marriage of these two influences — popular modern scare fare has become the stuff of The Blair Witch Project and such progeny as Paranormal Activity. They deliver the same chills and thrills, just filtered through the grainy prism of camcorder and surveillance monitors.
From this standpoint, The Woman in Black feels more like a musty curio than a standalone frightener. This adaptation of Susan Hill's 1983 novel — already the basis for a West End theater production now approaching a run of 23 years — pays homage to the Gothic Hammer Horror films, not coincidental as it's the first feature in more than 30 years shot in England under the until-recently dormant production banner.
Director James Watkins imbues every scene with the typical tropes: creepy kids, evil apparitions, a vine-covered manse, overgrown cemeteries and an array of spooky toys and music boxes. Shadows flutter about and objects jump out of nowhere, usually accompanied by a musical flourish. It's all a handsome showcase that taps your sense of nostalgia more intensely than your adrenal gland.
Set in Victorian England, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a man whose wife died four years ago while giving birth to their son (Misha Handley). Now a struggling solicitor and single dad, Kipps is dispatched to the coastal town of Crythin Gifford to attend to the affairs of Mrs. Alice Drablow, a recently deceased recluse. There, Kipps finds a village of the damned, townsfolk grappling with an inexplicable epidemic of their children fatally harming themselves.
Unsurprisingly ignoring locals' warnings, Kipps snakes his way down a meandering causeway to Drablow's decrepit estate, an archetypal haunted house cut off from the mainland by the nocturnal high tide. Filmed on the 380-acre Osea Island in Essex, the evocative locale is, unfortunately, far more dynamic than its on-screen inhabitants.
After arriving, Kipps' professional duties quickly take a backseat to wading into the mysterious death of a young boy years earlier. Of course, movies of this sort subsist off such folly, so Kipps not only chooses to stay overnight at the haunted mansion (cueing audience guffaws), but he follows every sound and chases every shadow, most notably the ghostly presence of the titular femme. There's surprisingly little blood; the lone sight of crimson, gushing from the mouth of a doomed girl, stands out against a palette that's as hoary as the horror precepts at play.
Radcliffe does well as Scary Potter, but is given little else to do. Fans will have to make do seeing him again battle a pale-faced villain, visiting an ethereal rail station in the process. Ciarán Hinds headlines a game-supporting cast that includes Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer. Only when they show up does the film achieve anything approaching character complexity.
That said, Watkins crafts some striking visuals, and audiences pining for the visceral stimuli of an old-fashioned ghost story will occasionally startle, at least until the fifth time an empty rocking chair totters on its own or the WIB's ashen image appears in a window pane or down a long corridor. Capped by a cloying climax, The Woman in Black quickly runs out of ideas ... and frights.