Hammer Film Productions is a British company with decades of experience creating films, especially horror and monster movies, like The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Quatermass Xperiment. They were something of a powerhouse through the mid 1980s, but then went mostly dark until 2010 with Let Me In, the unnecessary remake of the excellent Swedish Let the Right One In, and followed that up with several less well-known releases in 2011. With The Woman in Black, they’re back in the mainstream with a pretty decent thriller.
Set in 1920s Britain, the film focuses on Arthur Kipps (played by Daniel Radcliffe), a man whose work for a local law firm has been suffering since his wife died giving birth to their son Joseph a few years ago. His boss has had enough and is giving him just one more chance to keep his job. The firm has been put in charge of the remote estate of a recently-deceased woman, and the man who had been assigned to oversee the execution of the will had completely dropped the ball. Arthur must travel to the isolated and eerily-named Eel Marsh to sort through all her papers and ensure that the estate is handled according to her will.
On the train to the nearest town, Arthur meets an exceptionally nice man who introduces himself as Samuel Daily (played by Ciarán Hinds) and offers to give him a ride from the train station to his hotel, so he doesn’t have to make the long walk in the rain, and invites Arthur to dine with him and his wife Elizabeth the next evening. But upon arriving at the hotel, Arthur learns that not all of the townspeople are as nice as Sam, and he gets the distinct impression that he’s not welcome. They’d very much appreciate it if he just got right back on the train and went home to London. Of course he declines, but perhaps it would have been better for everybody if he had listened.
The Woman in Black may not be the greatest horror film of the year (or even of the weekend, which also includes the excellent We Need to Talk About Kevin and the very good The Innkeepers), but it’s still pretty good. Most of the scares are of the cheap variety, in the form of sudden movement punctuated by loud music, but they work fairly well, and they’re interspersed with enough of the “something slowly moving in the background” variety that you have to pay fairly close attention, so the jumps are even more startling.
I am a little disappointed by the motivation for the horror in the film. It’s a pretty common premise, with a spirit hanging around because something is left unfinished, but it’s vastly less honorable and more unprovoked than similar stories from other films. Whereas you often have the ability to develop a measure of sympathy for the spirit, I did not get that at all in this case, and the end was much less satisfying as a result.
Even with its faults, The Woman in Black is a much better horror movie than the majority of what gets pumped out, and I went in with fairly low expectations, which allowed me to be pleasantly surprised. It’s far from perfect, but it may be worth checking out if you’re into this kind of thing, and it gives hope for a Hammer resurgence.