It's ironic that the new Hammer Studios production The Woman In Black is being hailed by most as a return to classic Hammer horror. Not because it isn't a fine film but because its ghostly narrative resembles nothing in the classic Hammer catalog. Hammer was always about very physical threats. When you think Hammer you think of Christopher Lee's face dripping blood as Dracula, or his ravaged visage as Frankenstein's Monster, or him violently smashing his way through the French doors of Peter Cushing's study as The Mummy. Hammer wasn't about intangible, spectral chills, it was about Dracula spectacularly disintegrating to dust in the sunlight.
But because The Woman In Black is an old timey period piece, that's enough to make it classic Hammer in the minds of many. Whether it really fits the Hammer mold or not, it seems like today's Hammer has finally found the movie to put them back on the map after their remake of Let The Right One In landed with a disappointing thud in 2010 (even though that grisly vampire tale had more in common with classic Hammer than The Woman In Black does).
An adaptation of a 1983 novel by Susan Hill (which I haven't read) which has been previously adapted into both a long running play and a 1989 BBC TV movie (neither of which I've seen), The Woman In Black is a studious attempt at creating a classic English ghost story. Not being able to compare it to its predecessors, I can't say how well it works as an adaptation but as a newcomer to the material I thought it was great, spooky fun.
With all the terrible tragedy that the story encompasses, "fun" might not be the best word for it but for anyone looking for an eerie tale well told, The Woman In Black fits the bill nicely. Director James Watkins (who previously directed the grim Eden Lake) and screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) clearly have an affection for genre fare and they make The Woman In Black into a sure-footed yarn. It doesn't deliver anything cutting edge but it has the instant vibe of a comfort food sort of film as well as one that's ideal for younger viewers just starting to explore the genre.
Watkins goes for more than his share of jump scares but I think that's fine for a movie like this that's looking to elicit a few fun shrieks. A lot of fans look down on jump scares but I enjoy them as a genre staple and Watkins pulls off a few very effective ones here.
I had read that Daniel Radcliffe comes off as too young to play a widower with a young son but his performance as solicitor Arthur Kipps didn't strike me as being off at all. Yes, he looks young but not to the point of distraction. I've also read some complaints that the ending is a little too treacly or sentimental but I found it satisfying.
At heart it maintains the story's grim tone while at the same time providing the kind of "up" moment that only a supernatural film can allow. For me, it worked (apparently every prior version of WIB - the novel, the play, and the TV movie - have sported different endings). Without spoiling anything I will say that given what transpires, I find it funny that anyone would claim that it was too cheery!
That said, I did leave the theater with a smile on my face. I took my six year old son to see it as his first horror movie in the theaters and it turned out to be a perfect choice (although I will say it wouldn't be perfect for every six year old - parents approach with caution). The Paranormal Activity films have shown that there's a big audience looking for supernatural scares but The Woman In Black proves that these scares don't have to be of the "found footage" variety - that there's still room for traditional storytelling and old fashioned craftsmanship. It might not quite be the kind of Hammer film that the studio originally made its name on but it still manages to feel like the return of an old favorite.