The three lovely Fisher girls, at play in their attic nursery, drop their toys and walk purposefully to the window ledge, whence they jump to their deaths. They are thought to be the victims of Jennet Humfrye, whose son died in a cart accident in the swamp near Eel Marsh House, the home she shared with her married sister and brother-in-law. The villagers of Crythin Gifford believe that, ever since, this woman in black has willed the deaths of local children in vengeance for her son. So when the young solicitor Arthur Kipps comes from London to the desolate eastern coast of England to settle the affairs of Eel Marsh House, the townsfolk’s every glance screams, Leave here! When he begs for a room at the local inn, the owners — Mr. and Mrs. Fisher — brusquely install him in the attic room where their little girls leapt to their deaths. And when another child dies in his arms, they fear that he somehow carries the plague of the Woman in Black.
Harry Potter — rather, Daniel Radcliffe — to the rescue. As the title character of the eight-film movie franchise, he battled another undead adversary, Voldemort, who had killed Harry’s parents when he was a baby. Now, in the sumptuously scary film of The Woman in Black, Radcliffe’s Arthur grieves as well: his beloved wife died in childbirth, leaving him with a son, now four, and a broken heart. So, long before he arrives at Eel Marsh House, Arthur has been haunted by the unquiet spirit of a young mother. Perhaps that is why, unlike the villagers, he has actually seen the Woman in Black parade the Marsh grounds. We’ve had a glimpse of the specter too: as he gazes from a window of the house, there she briefly stands, right behind him.
The Woman in Black is a ghost story so observant of the Gothic-Victorian tradition that its biggest shock is that it was written in 1982. An instant and enduring success, Susan Hill’s novel inspired a play version that opened in 1987 and is still going strong, making it the longest-running show in West End history after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, now in its 60th year. In 1989, the Hill novel became a British TV film, with Arthur played by Adrian Rawlins — who in the Hogwarts movies played Harry’s father James. Now screenwriter Jane Goldman (previously the movie adapter of the graphic novels Stardust and Kick-Ass) and director James Watkins (the assured sado-thriller Eden Lake) have taken over this venerable property and installed Radcliffe as the tenant, hero and victim. Going through the family papers and seeking an answer to Jennet’s mystery, he’ll need to stay there alone for two days and nights — if he lives that long.
Hill has said that before writing The Woman in Black, “I sat down and made a list of ingredients, rather like baking a cake — a list of what you absolutely need in a ghost story — and then I worked from there.” Among the obvious antecedents are Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, with the haunted children, the haunting adults and the innocent outsider, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Arthur, the young solicitor who falls under the spectral spell of an eerie mansion in a remote land, is a first cousin to Stoker’s Jonathan Harker. To these Hill added story elements that kids might remember from their first visit to a haunted house: the bedroom doors that snap shut, the rocking chair tipping vigorously with no visible occupant, the fetid breath like damp seaweed on the necks of the unwary.
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Hill’s plot and its particulars are familiar because she meant them to be. Proudly old-fashioned, The Woman in Black in its book, play or film form is a tintype photo of horror — set at the turn of the last century, and at home in the antique terrors of that time. Kave Quinn, the movie’s production designer, has dressed Eel Marsh House in the finest cobwebs and filled it with more creepy windup toys than Laurence Olivier’s sinister sadist played with in another suave torture test, the 1972 Sleuth. Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones paints the place in dark browns amid the sepulchral shadows; and though Arthur does much of his work in daylight hours, the clock always seems about to strike midnight. Even its startles are reassuring: nearly every shock comes a half-second before or after you expect it to. And if you should nod off, the sound effects, a distant howl or bleating toy, come blasting in on cue at 11 volume.
The most effective chills, though, come from the nearness of the woman in black, who is always a presence, like a rumor threatening to become flesh and/or bone. Jennet (ethereally embodied by Liz Smith) is an archetype, or a stereotype, of the vengeful ghost. Her unseen hand scratches out the faces of her sister and brother-in-law in a family portrait; and when Arthur rips open the wallpaper in the child’s room he sees “You Could Have Saved Me” scrawled in her hand. Determined to salve this homicidal shade — and because his own four-year-old will be arriving shortly from London — Arthur moves heaven, earth and a good deal of marsh muck to try reuniting Jennet and her son. Will he rid Crythin Gifford of the Woman in Black before she makes someone else her mortal hostage?
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Instead of robbing Arthur of his wife at the end of the story, as Hill did, Goldman kills her off at the beginning. That puts Arthur in a state of perpetual mourning and establishes his kinship with Jennet and the villagers whose children she has killed. Making Arthur a young widower also plays to Radcliffe’s strengths. As Harry Potter, he spent literally half his life displaying both respect for supernatural evil and the grim will to confront it. That tension — that expecting the worst but never knowing when it might reveal itself — plays naturally across Radcliffe’s features and helps him carry what is essentially a one-man show. Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer are fine in support, as a married couple touched by tragedy, but for the middle third of the movie Radcliffe is on his own, tiptoeing through Eel Marsh House, pursuing or evading the ghost.
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