A straightforward, old-fashioned haunted-house story has become almost a novelty in our time. Demons are another story. We’ve had no shortage of exorcism films; demonic possession is practically old hat. Zombies are everywhere, and vampires are still riding high. We’re chock-a-block with the undead, but we’ve almost forgotten the other half of the postmortem horror equation: the unquiet spirit, and all that goes with it — the ramshackle house that no one dares stay in overnight; a reflection or glimpse in a window of a face where there can be no face; doors that open and close by themselves; bodies not properly buried in sacred ground. Even The Sixth Sense and The Others (spoilers!) were unorthodox ghost stories, told, in a sense, the wrong way around, from the spectral point of view.
Perhaps it’s partly because we aren’t quite sure what a ghost actually does. As C. S. Lewis noted in The Problem of Pain, “No one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is uncanny rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it induces may be called dread.” Dread is more difficult to manufacture than a visceral reaction to something with arms and teeth that can grab and bite and leave a trail of potentially R-rated blood and gore in its wake. Anyway, with a ghost, the brave and optimistic may always hope to find a way of placating it, of discovering the secret of its anger and helping it achieve peace and move on. No one ever placated a zombie or a vampire.
The Woman in Black, based on the eponymous 1983 novel by Susan Hill (previously adapted as a long-running stage play and a TV movie), is as traditional a ghost story as one could wish. Its very clichés have become fresh. It has atmosphere to burn, with splendid locations and production design bringing to life Hill’s terrific conceit of Eel Marsh House, an isolated old mansion in the brackish marshes on the outskirts of a coastal village, accessible only by a low causeway that disappears twice a day when high tide floods the marshes. For Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, who stars as a young solicitor named Arthur Kipps, The Woman in Black is an opportunity to make a reasonably graceful break from the role that has dominated his life since childhood. For the new owners of England’s legendary Hammer horror brand, until recently dormant from the 1970s, it’s an opportunity to stake their claim to continuing in the tradition of Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster et al. For curious movie watchers, it’s an opportunity to see how Radcliffe does in another role — and how an old-fashioned haunted house story plays today.
In all these capacities, The Woman in Black is serviceable, if not inspired. Sporting sideburns and a shuffling walk, Radcliffe is fine as an early 20th-century everyman in an emotional fog after the death of his wife, who died giving birth to their son Joseph (Misha Handley, Radcliffe’s real-life godson). I don’t suppose Radcliffe, at 22, is quite old enough for a widowed father of a four-year-old in early 20th-century London. At any rate, his eyes, when he looks at the boy, are not those of a father. But since father and son are separated for nearly the whole film, it’s not a notable handicap. Radcliffe is up to the challenge of negotiating the strange world in which Kipps finds himself when he arrives from London to settle affairs at Eel Marsh House: a bleak village named Crythin Gifford where strangers aren’t welcome and the eyes of children peer solemnly from windows as one walks down the street.
Happily for Kipps, he finds a friend in Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), a local landowner who lives near but not in Crythin Gifford, and seems less affected by the pall hanging over the village. Daily and his wife (Janet McTeer) have been touched by the local heartbreak — a rash of childhood deaths — but where the villagers see in the deaths a sign of an uncanny presence connected to Eel Marsh House, Daily’s bereavement has the opposite effect: Daily rejects the notion of ghosts as “superstition,” not in the name of empiricism or denial of life after death, but in the hope that what lies beyond the grave is better than that. “When we die,” he tells Kipps, “we go Up There. We don’t stay down here.”
This is a fascinating concern for a ghost story to raise. If ghosts exist, does that mean our departed loved ones — Kipps’s wife, for instance — aren't in Heaven, as he (and Joseph) suppose? Or, if we are unlucky enough to be characters in a ghost story, could the truth be more complicated? Could it be that only souls with unfinished business on earth linger until such time as they are able to rest in peace? The Woman in Black raises this question — and then stumbles, offering contradictory indications that ultimately make no sense. Given what Kipps learns about the Woman in Black’s unhappy life, it’s not surprising to find her still bound to the mortal coil. But what about the children of Crythin Gifford who have died? If their souls are still hanging around, the afterlife may be bleaker than Daily would like to believe. There is also imagery quite congenial to Christian imagination in a crucial sequence — but how this is to be reconciled with what has gone before is not at all apparent.
This is not to say that a ghost story, or any story, must have consistent rules and stick to them. It might be that the rules are unknown or unknowable. It might be that there are no rules. Deliberate ambiguity and even contradiction can be creepier and more effective than clear lines and easy answers. In this case, though, it’s simply a case of sloppy adaptation. The film attempts to retain something of the tone and arc of Hill’s novel while tacking on a dose of Hollywood formula. The result is a generic hodgepodge in which each of the parts works on its own, but they don’t come together to form a whole. The problem is more glaring with respect to a major sequence, not in the novel, in which Kipps goes to extraordinary lengths to help the Woman find peace. After all he goes through, he’s earned the right to the respect of any ghost in the world — or so it would seem from this side of the grave. Perhaps things look different from the other side. Once again, a movie is free to suggest that ghosts are more imponderable or capricious than we might suppose, but The Woman in Black doesn’t so much embrace the mystery as paper over the seams.
There are some nice choices. The movie makes shrewd use of occasional humor and absurdism. An unpretentious movie of this sort shouldn’t take itself too seriously, and this one doesn’t. McTeer’s unpredictable performance as the unstable Mrs. Daily makes her an effective foil for her level-headed husband. I like a moment when even Daily’s calm mask slips at a casual remark from Kipps betraying such complete indifference to the creepiness of Eel Marsh House that even Daily is given pause.
I enjoyed The Woman in Black well enough, but it left me less than satisfied. I wanted it to build to some larger revelation — wanted some new insight, in the end, into the ghost, her tragedy, her ultimate motivations, or the reason for the unprecedented imagery in the final scene. The best ghost stories, from The Uninvited (1944) to The Sixth Sense, play to the heart, if not always to the head. The Woman in Black is at its best when it’s playing to the nerves.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.