The Woman In Black began life as a short Gothic horror novel written by Susan Hill, first published in 1983. The book tells the story of a retired lawyer, who one Christmas Eve is listening to ghost stories around the fire with his second wife and his four step-children. Unwilling to tell them a story of his own, he instead writes down an account of when he was a young man who had to travel to a remote house for work; a house that is home to a dark spirit.
The book was an instant success, and was adapted into a television film six years later for ITV, as well as being produced into a stage play in 1987; a play that would go on to become the second longest running play in West End history. Despite the success, the story existed in this space of doing nothing until it was announced in 2009 that it would become part of the new revival of Hammer Horror, a beloved series of British made horror films.
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This new adaptation differs from the book a great deal, and stars Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, a young, widowed lawyer who’s sent to the remote Eel Marsh House, the home of a wealthy client locate in a remote marshland. Leaving his young son behind in London, Kipps travels to the small town nearby, where some of the locals try to encourage him to stay away from the place. Arriving at the isolated home, Kipps hears odd noises, finds strange, locked doors, and even sees a spectral figure dressed in black standing in the grounds outside the house.
When he arrives back in the village one of the young children in town dies after drinking lye. The villagers blame Kipps for this, and he learns that the strange woman in black he saw is a local legend, an entity that if seen means a child will die soon after. Determined to get to the bottom of things, Kipps returns to Eel Marsh House to find answers, and confront the dark spirit.
Up to this point the newly released Hammer films, films like Beyond The Rave, Let Me In, and Wake Wood, were more modern horror movies. They were set in contemporary periods, they had more modern concepts, and they often felt very similar to other film studio output. The Woman In Black, in contrast, instantly felt like Hammer Horror returning to its classic roots. Despite being a modern made story, the book is set in the Victorian Era; a time period where many of the biggest Hammer Horror movies were set.
The film leaned into the setting, using it to help with the horror. Kipps couldn’t just illuminate the remote, Gothic mansion by flicking a switch, nor could he grab a torch and explore the darkness. He has to move from room to room holding candles and oil lamps, or sometimes even just a single match. It felt like the darkness was much more oppressive, always closing in around him, and that the small piece of light he had could go out at any moment. The lack of technology also helped with the sense of isolation, as he couldn’t call for help, and no one would be speeding to his rescue in a boat or car equipped to make it through dangerous marshland.
Director James Watkins definitely seems to have tried to make a film that recaptures the glory of Hammer’s older work, and chose to make a film where the atmosphere was as much a character as any of the actors. He had long, slow shots that would linger uncomfortably. You’d find yourself constantly watching the backgrounds of scenes trying to spot where the woman might appear, or other shadowed figures might be moving. The film did have a handful of jump scares scattered throughout, and whilst these were effective at getting a scream or two out of the viewer, it was the ever building tension of watching Arthur alone in this dark and dilapidated house that was the real horror of the film.
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And Daniel Radcliffe did a great job at playing against this ever building sense of dread. There were times where he would be the only living character on screen for long periods, and the film was being carried on his ability to make you believe that he was alone and terrified. And for the most part he did it really well, although at just twenty three at the time he seemed quite young for the role. The average age for married men in the 1890s was twenty six, so it’s not impossible that the character could have been married, widowed, and had a four year old son at twenty three, but it does occasionally feel like he’s slightly too young for the part.
The Woman In Black is a film that helped to put Hammer back on the map, that showed that it could still produce dark, brooding Gothic horror that doesn’t rely on gore or big scares to frighten the audience. It showed that its star was more than just a child actor capable of only one role. And it ended up being one of the better book to film adaptations around.
The Woman In Black was released in the UK on 10th February 2012.