Thursday, June 21, 2012

Radcliffe and Company Nail It: The Woman In Black

At last, a proper horror film! Director James Watkins' The Woman in Black (adapted from the Susan Hill novel of the same name) gives not only ample scares and carefully crafted nods to its thriller predecessors but wins with inspired performances, sound design, and cinematography as well. Although less is not always more in thrillers like these (or so the suits love to argue) the subtlety and control used by the screenwriter and director in creating this film serve to bring us what might possibly be the classiest endeavor the genre has ever seen (of which lead Daniel Radcliffe is obviously a large part).
Radcliffe plays widower Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who must leave his son and nanny to settle the estate of an elderly woman off the shore of the eastern corner of England. He's greeted with hostility by many of the villagers, and obviously senses there is a darkness about the isolated residence he's been paid to set in order, but he stubbornly agrees to finish the job---until a strange woman in black shows up and starts manipulating the village children into various acts of doom. Sam Daily, a villager (who is also of professional status) takes a liking to Kipps and invites him into his home but refuses to believe the woman in black is real or has any impact on the village, despite having lost his own son years prior and the fact that his wife strenuously feels otherwise. Kipps' problem, then, lies not only in doing his business in a hostile work environment, but also in uncovering the stalking woman's past and preventing her from doing harm to more children in the village and eventually, his own son.
The aesthetic decisions made in this production were crucial to its overall success, charm, and status as what I earlier referred to as "proper." The constant grayness in color, the long, wide shots in filming the estate, and its proximity to the (gray, long, wide) ocean created a very isolated, drowning sort of feeling, giving the house a sinister personality all its own even before Kipps enters. The villagers don't want him nosing around, won't go there themselves, and once the tide rises for the first time, covering the long, tiny, spindle of a driveway completely, we're with them----who wouldn't be? Radcliffe plays Kipps similarly; melancholy and serious (exemplified wonderfully by his son Joseph's constant sad-face drawings of him), and with neat, angled sideburns and those striking blue eyes, is a bit of a visual treat himself.

Once inside the house, the experience widens with further visual scares, monkey statues, old toys, startling ravens, not to mention the sighting of the woman through the window, but also with aural scares, too: high pitched, threatening notes (very similar to Jack Torrance's psychological breaking point in his investigations of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining), thumps and footsteps in various rooms in the house, the juxtaposition of joyful, wind-up toy music in a child's bedroom (thanks, Insidious, I love evil mixed with an insanely happy melody) with the creaking and exaggerated swaying of a seriously demented rocking chair . . . without ever seeing the villain close up (at least at first), her evil accompaniment, the subtle, material hints of who she is and what's she's done are enough to make us cringe, again and again.

Probably the most important aspect to this film is its setting, not only the house in question nor its location, but the period in time as well. Noted (in Wikipedia) to have taken place during the Edwardian Era, the story, while not exactly holding women in very high esteem on the surface, poses several interesting ideas about power and ability in woman, specifically mothers, during a time when such things were virtually unheard of. Sam Daily's wife, at first shown to be a bit off her rocker (feeding the family dogs at the dinner table, rocking one in a cradle) claims to be able to communicate with her departed son; Sam is embarassed by her and blows her off. The Woman in Black, as it turns out, lost a son of her own, and was driven crazy by her need to reclaim him. Kipps' own wife, having died in childbirth, seems to pop up every now and then, though it's never really clear if her presence is just Kipps' wishful thinking, daydreams, or actually happening, but given the fact that two other women are unable to let go of the children they lost and seem to have developed superhuman abilities in either simply relating to them or avenging them, it's reasonable that Mrs. Kipps, too, might be hanging around for just such a purpose.
No fury like a woman scorned? Yes. And also don't mess with her son, either.