For those who’ve only heard the name in passing, Hammer Films was a British production that rose to a certain level of prominence in the late fifties and sixties, largely on the back a series of horror films based around characters popularized by Hollywood in the thirties like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. These films, which made semi-stars out of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, were not what you’d call fine cinema even by the often low standards of the horror movie. In short they were B-movies, and most of their appeal lied in the fact that they were slightly bloodier than their 1930s ancestors and that they were in “living color.” That’s not to say that they didn’t have a certain charm all their own and they have a fan-base to this day because of it. The studio closed sometime in the seventies but the “Hammer” name still has nostalgia value to many, and so it’s been revived to extend its trademarked charming mediocrity into the 21st century and their latest film is a low-key chiller called The Woman in Black.
The classic horror story that The Woman in Black most closely resembles is probably Dracula in that both stories begin with young English lawyers traveling to remote houses in remote villages in order to conduct business. The protagonist in the movie, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), does not need to go all the way to Transylvania; he just needs to go to Northeast England to oversee the sale of a reclusive widow’s house. He’s doing this with a heavy heart, however, because he’s only a few years out from his wife having died in child birth and this is seen as a make or break assignment from his law firm, which is losing patience with his grief. When he arrives in the village he finds that something is amiss, the villagers seem to be trying to shoo him away as fast as possible, which only makes him more anxious to see what they’re trying to hide. Once he finds his way to the house he gets the sense that he’s not alone, and in the distance he sees the figure of a woman in full grief regalia staring back at him. He dismisses this sight at first, but soon he’ll come to regret having laid eyes upon it.
I’m probably not giving away too much when I say that this ghostly woman in black is the widow who lived in that haunted house and that she’s been haunting the village as revenge for some sort of past wrong. Truth be told, this is a film that will feel extremely familiar to anyone who’s been seeing like-minded horror films recently. The basic story structure adds almost nothing to what we saw to varying degrees of success in films like The Orphanage and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: we’ve got the emotionally haunted hero, the ghost who’s miffed about some mysterious slight in their past, all leading up to a climax where the hero tries to satiate the ghost’s thirst for revenge. Most of the actual scares take either the form of the “creepy thing that emerges in front of (or behind) the hero” or the “sudden jump scare that emerges right when you’re most on edge.” Neither of these scene constructions are necessarily bad things, but you can only go to that well so many times and they aren’t nearly as effective at the film’s end as they are early in the film. This makes me better appreciate a film like The Innkeepers which was much more efficient at keeping its cards close to the table and only playing them at the most opportune moments.
Flawed though it may be, you probably can do much worse than The Woman in Black if you’re looking for a horror film. It’s many of its beats are clichéd, but they aren’t nearly as clichéd as something like a slasher movie full of horny doomed teenagers. The titular woman is a pretty good villain for the whole piece and Daniel Radcliffe proves to be a fairly workable lead. As such this is a pretty good bet for an evening rental, just don’t expect it to re-invent anything or really frighten you in any kind of deep or primal way, it’s just a fun little diversion.
*** out of Four