|"I know not how she found me"|
I was also a little worried about it being a period thriller. I guess I was expecting something to seem a little "off" with the setting or costumes, like they would toss in some more contemporary styles so the aforementioned young audience would be able to relate to it easier. I can't think of any examples but I know I've seen at least a few movies set in a bygone era that didn't "feel" right in its aesthetics and that took me out of it. So, yeah, there were a couple reasonable things to be worried about here.
That being said, this is still one of the best mainstream horror movies I've seen in years.
Remember when you were a kid, and you heard a really convincing ghost story? How you knew it was just a story, but in the back of your mind a lingering worry that some sort of disembodied spirit was going to be standing at the end of your bed that very night? To me, a great ghost story should be a cerebral affair. Slow, subtle, a looming sense of dread in an otherwise familiar place is something we've all felt, and it's the task of a ghost story to take us back to a place like that: make us uneasy, make us nervous, and more importantly make us carry that sense of dread in our memory so our imaginations can run away with us later that night. It should linger.
When it comes to ghost/haunting movies there's always this looming sense of dread, for me, that it's going to be a story with a lot of blue-tinted light breaking through heavy shadows; characters shouting out into the darkness and/or declaring the situation "isn't funny" to the friend they think is playing a prank on them. A lot of situations obviously leading to jump-scares and shaky camera movements when the ghost starts their poltergeist-ing, and a really ... really underwhelming ending which doesn't sit right with anything that came before.
Most of these movies follow a formula they rarely deviate from. Too often it's stale and predictable. Scary, yes, but it doesn't linger with you past that jump scare with the harsh violin sting. But sometimes, something happens, and the atmosphere itself comes alive and starts walking around set, helping them self to the craft services table, and you start to believe just for a second there's a little truth to the fiction being presented.
|Pictured: The Woman in White|
In terms of suspense and horror, there really isn't anything quite like a period piece ghost story. Unlike a ghost story set in the modern day, one set in ... say, the 1800's, is riddled with atmosphere. No need to toss people in a cabin in the woods to force a feeling of isolation, no reason to show off the lack of a cellphone signal to drive home the fact there's little chance of getting help, no need for all the lights to suddenly go out to make things spooky. Instead we get a creaky old house adorned with dark-stained wood, faded paint on the walls; the sense that every room is cold at night no matter how large the fire softly crackling in the fireplace is.
This isn't some lame two-story house in the suburbs that just hasn't yet caught up to the times, we're talking about an cavernous, labyrinthine living space once so full of life and now standing silent and alone on a hill with only candles and lanterns to light the way - only a handful at a time to avoid wasting the tallow. Giant oil paint portraits stare blankly at you and thick, heavy curtains frame the windows. It's a colossal mansion standing solitary on an island, the only road to and from which is constantly vanishing as the tide rolls in and steals it away. This house represents true isolation, and with a character already appearing suicidal and disjointed from reality, such isolation can run the risk of playing tricks on the mind. He wonders if the rhythmic thumping just upstairs, right above his head, really is more than just an old pipe.
This is exactly the kind of house you get lost in for more than half the duration of The Woman in Black. There's a certain weight this old house can carry with it, and with every clomp of Radcliffe's shoes against the wooden staircase paired with a serious lack of warm, comforting lights that just stays with you for a while afterward.
|Pictured: Me, home alone after looking up stills for the review|
The supporting cast does some fine if obvious work setting up for a mysterious mystery but the bulk of the film involves Radcliffe exploring and making subtle faces, and if Radcliffe is known for anything, I'd say it's facial expressions. Eight movies worth of whimsical, sad, frightened, stoic, courageous and shy faces proves he's capable of looking off-camera and reacting to something that isn't there.
In a movie that's sparse with dialogue, an actor skilled in expressions is easily the most important element. That might come off as negative, it isn't meant to be. The true strength of the film comes from all the silence. We're left to fill the gaps in our own heads as we notice movement behind him, shadows revealing faces and chairs rocking violently. In a way we're left experiencing it all first-hand, allowing our own thoughts and fears and nervousness flood into the moment and feel our own fight or flight response activate. Countless times I found myself covered in goosebumps, especially when the old mechanical toys sprung to life - if only because I remember being around old toys similar in appearance when I was but a wee lad.
I was surprised my only gripe turned out to be how Radcliffe's lawyer character - sent to the house to clear up some paperwork and settle the estate - didn't do much lawyer-ing, instead skipping over all of that as he tries his hands at Ghostbusting and in three days making more of an effort to settle the spirit than any of the locals who have been plagued for decades. That's a gripe one has to really dig deep to find, let me tell you.
But in the end, any ghost story is only as good as the lasting effect on its audience. I have a simple gauge for the lasting impact of a scary movie: I recreate some or all of the elements at home. If my girlfriend ends up terrified ... well, it was effective! (Seriously, you should have seen my Paranormal Activity test.) So am I saying The Woman in Black is effective in leaving a lasting impression? Sure, but I'm also saying I like to scare the shit out of my girlfriend as often as possible.