Based on Susan Hill’s novel, it’s about a clerk Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) who is sent to do legal work about the deceased Mrs Drablow. Kipps’ wife has died, he has a son. Travelling to the village near Eel Marsh House (where she lived) he meets Sam (Ciaran Hinds) who is the local rich man whose son has died and whose wife is mentally ill. Kipps gets a frosty reception from villagers. He is taken to Eel Marsh House and he looks over her papers, he sees a mysterious woman in black. He visits Sam and then a couple of children in the village die and their deaths happen under the influence of the Woman in Black. Sam and Kipps return to the house after retrieving the corpse of Mrs Drablows’s boy and more spookiness happens. Kipps is at the railway station reunited with his son and…
Susan Hill’s novel has been a TV film, a long running play, on the radio, and now on film. Each is fairly different from the book and this film departs from the original story quite often, to the dismay of readers who find the book scary. I had high hopes for this, I wanted it to succeed. On the positive side, there is a skilfully creepy atmosphere to the house. The sound of the ghost’s rocking chair is scary but it could not build up into real terror. The puppets are sinister and there are claustrophobic terrors in the oppressive heaviness of Victorian domestic decor. The details of Victoriana are well observed: the spinning Zoetrope, the pictures of the dead, the heavy wooden beds and wardrobes which loom up in their forest of shadows and sinister silences – Norman Bates would be quite at home. Alas the film undermines all this, it cannot sustain mystery or nuance. Money must be to blame for its inevitable crassness: the muddied child looming out of the bedsheets, the Woman in Black herself looks like a lard face with conjunctivitis. Her best moment was when she was an indistinct shadow from the grave but that could not be sustained. Daniel Ratcliffe was brought in to bolster the teenager presence in the audience but the character needs someone older able to convey the range of emotions from tragic parenthood, to professional self confidence, and then to terror. It’s all very well claiming that ghost stories are about reclaiming memory, suffering loss, and gaining redemption but those sound like excuses for not ratcheting up the scariness which the book could do and the film doesn’t deliver emotionally. It goes for the claim on our emotions that mainstream cinema over exploits, it guarantees hatred of the Woman in Black because like a female Herod, she’s all doom for children. Janet McTeer as the bereaved posh mother acts more woodenly than the local yokels (who are the usual villagers with a dark secret who won’t talk to strangers). This film also suffers from geographical confusion, we get the Yorkshire Dales round the village which amazingly is only a short ride from the marshes of East Anglia. The stolid village folk gurn in Yorkshire accents but Keckwith who takes Kipps out to the house, is an East Anglian Barkis.
This is a sadly squandered opportunity as it lets Susan Hill’s story down badly. Here are my Top Five Scariest Films of all Time:
1) The Dead of Night (1945)
2) The Others (2000)
3) The Exorcist (1973)
4) Whistle and I’ll Come (1968)
5) The Haunting (1963 – definitely not the crass 1999 one)