Even though this movie maintains a steady simmer, it never boils over into unbridled terror. Not the best the genre has to offer - but not the worst, either.
When widower lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is dispatched to the east coast town of Crythin Gifford to settle the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow, he goes knowing the task is his last chance to prove to his boss that grief hasn't crippled his ability to work. It's that same perseverance that keeps Arthur going when he begins to notice the trend of strange occurrences happening in and around Crythin Gifford: children locked in their houses like prisoners, townspeople treating him as if he has the plague, and a blatant attempt by some sympathetic locals to turn him back toward home.
Of course, Arthur doesn't truly understand what is so wrong until he crosses the perennially-foggy marshlands along the coastline to visit Eel Marsh House, the Drablow Estate. Once inside the old mansion, Arthur quickly begins to see and hear things that are far from ordinary - chairs that rock on their own, the sound of footsteps where no person walks - and now and again, a mysterious woman dressed in mourning garb, who appears in windows or off in the distance.
As Arthur digs into the mystery of this mysterious figure and her connection to the Drablows and the townsfolk, his stony demeanor slowly crumbles before the increasing evidence that something unholy exists in Eel Marsh House.
The Woman in Black continues to mark the return of Hammer Films, the UK production house known for its trademark Gothic horror flicks, and director James Watkins (The Descent 2, Eden Lake) succeeds in creating a chilling world of ghosts and shadows to play in. The film is based on the 1983 novel by Susan Hill, which has already been adapted as both a stage play and a 1980s TV miniseries. Acclaimed screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, The Debt, X-Men: First Class) makes a few changes to the tale, but it is essentially the same ghost story - and therein lies the problem.
Any ghost story needs its "rules" - i.e., the establishment of certain information and backstory - such as where the ghost came from, how it behaves, what its powers are, etc. Though this task is handled pretty heavy-handedly in the film (exposition dumps and voice-over narration), we learn from the very first frame that this particular dark spirit targets children, forcing them to commit brutal acts of self-extermination. It's a plot-point that gives way to some truly horrific child death scenes in the film - but at the same time, it leaves very little at stake for our main character, Arthur, who is an adult.
This is why The Woman in Black is both highly effective and highly ineffective in its attempt to terrify. The plot is flimsy as they come (basically, Arthur has to sit around an old mansion by himself for hours on end, looking through a dead woman's creepy artifacts), but it still provides context for some good extended scare sequences. Indeed, Watkins makes smart use of that time, and on the whole, a lot of what Arthur encounters in the mansion is bone-chilling and/or squirm-inducing. The images of death, supernatural occurrences and violence stick in mind even after the end credits roll.
However, after a few rounds of jump scares and frightening imagery are done, the anticipation and dread begin to dissipate as it becomes clear that there is no danger to Arthur himself (remember those "rules?"), and that indeed, he is only a peripheral figure in the eyes of the spirit, whose real prey is children (themselves peripheral characters in the film). We never get that catharsis of seeing an important character facing death, or the feeling that our protagonist himself could die - so the prospect of being scared quickly settles into the mild satisfaction of being creeped out, and an attempt at a climactic third act twist does nothing to redeem that downward slope.
Similarly, Radcliffe's character goes from having the potential to a be complex and tragic figure (consumed with grief in the same way the ghost is), to simply being the guy who is too emotionally stunted to freak out or run away from the bizarre happenings like most of us would. The actor succeeds in leaving his Harry Potter persona somewhat behind - but admittedly, that Radcliffe-brand world-weary look is something both characters share. Ciarán Hinds' character (a skeptic with a half-mad wife) also seems like he will be rich with potential at the onset - but ultimately settles into a sidekick role instead.
The film's greatest asset is no doubt the set piece of Eel Marsh House. The land is bleak and foggy and foreboding, and the combination of impeccable set design by Niamh Coulter, smart cinematography by Tim Maurice-Jones and creative direction by Watkins makes the mansion a true house of horrors. Even in daylight, the various props decorating house make it look treacherous and freakish, and Watkins and Jones play with angles, space, and lighting to give off the distinct effect that even minor objects are menacing (see: the toy collection), and that every shadow on the peripheral or down a length of hallway hides something sinister. Best haunted house I've seen in awhile.
Ultimately, The Woman in Black amounts to the sort of creepy ghost story that one might hear around a campfire. At most it will keep you squirming in your seat, ready to duck your face into your hands or shirt - but even though this movie maintains a steady simmer, it never boils over into unbridled terror. Not the best the genre has to offer - but not the worst, either.
The Woman in Black is currently playing in theaters everywhere.