Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All Build-up, No Payoff -- Reflections on "The Woman in Black" (2012)

"Come back to bed, Harry..."

As a critic, one of the biggest rules is that you don’t spoil anything. You outline the sort of story the movie is trying to tell, sharing a bit of the exposition, and you make sure to leave out any big twists and turns. Usually, this isn’t a problem, except with movies that rely heavily on twists and surprises to tell their story (Cabin in the Woods). Sometimes, though, you get a movie in which your entire opinion hinges on whether or not you appreciated the parts you’re not allowed to spoil, like the ending.

Well, The Woman in Black is such a movie. The ending of this movie is so irksome that it flat out ruined everything the film had been building toward. I found myself openly groaning at the end, annoyed by its incredible contradiction and attempt to pander to the laziest of audience emotions. I won’t tell you how it ends, but know that I was horribly disappointed, and can’t help but give the movie a negative opinion because of it.

Up until the end, this was a sweet little throwback horror film. Hammer studios has returned to making the sorts of movies that were their bread and butter in the late 50s and 60s: atmospheric gothic pieces about haunted people in the face of ambiguous evil. This film begins as a worthy ancestor to classics like Horror of Dracula (1958) and Curse of Frankenstein (1957). The art direction is impeccable, with incredibly creepy sets framed in fog and populated with pale, haunted faces. This is a very traditional gothic horror world, and the film gets the look and sound of it perfect.

Unfortunately, it loses you as the story progresses. Our hero is Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a London lawyer who is called to the village of Cryphin Gifford to get the affairs of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow in order, especially that of her house, Eel Marsh. Arthur is keen to make this work because he is severely depressed because of the death of his lovely wife, Stella, four years before, and his boss makes it clear that if Arthur can’t take care of business, he will be out of a job. So, Arthur leaves his son behind and discovers that this desolate village is in the throes of fear due to the haunting of the Eel Marsh house, and especially the presence of the titular Woman in Black, whose very appearance is said to lead to the death of a child. This must be true because every villager is a grieving parent. Of course Eel Marsh is haunted, and Arthur has to face the evil lurking within.

The Woman in Black is not looking to re-invent the wheel; it’s just looking to give the wheel another spin. And for three-quarters of the film it does just that, and does a good job of it. The building of suspense through the establishment of the house’s darker corners, perfectly placed mirrors, and menagerie of wind-up toys is expert and effective. But Arthur’s third act decision comes with so little warning and justification that it’s laughable (it’s also a twist stolen from The Ring, not that it much matters), and the resolution is a blatant contradiction of the scene that precedes it.

The problems with the conclusion have their roots in the movie’s biggest misstep. Arthur Kipps is not particularly changed by this haunted house. There is no indication that he may be losing his mind. Everything is played so straightforward that the action feels flat when the characters begin trying to deal with the supernatural presence. As played by Radcliffe, Arthur is such a good guy that it is hard to imagine him unraveling mentally, or for all this madness to be a figment of his imagination. The lack of ambiguity hurts this film, I think, and leads to the awful ending.

Oh well, they can’t all be what you want them to be. I didn’t hate The Woman in Black so much as I was let down by it.


  1. I completely agree with your analysis of this film. I was let down as well. And more so I think, because the build up was so nicely done. And I must say well written review!