The Woman in Black emulates classic haunted-house horror films of the 1960s but adds a nasty little trick: A hateful specter compels a town's young children to take their own lives. Daniel Radcliffe, in his first major role since leaving Hogwarts, plays a lawyer tasked with selling a spooky old English manor haunted by the vengeful woman in black, and Radcliffe completely sells the horror. Director James Watkins (Eden Lake) overuses sudden loud noises to frighten the audience, but the gloomy atmosphere and tense narrative create enough genuine thrills to call The Woman in Black a success.
The film is the fifth - and highest profile - release under the revived Hammer Film Productions banner, and the spook-house jolts are appropriate from the studio best known for its campy "Hammer Horror" films. The Woman in Black has a relatively simple premise, and attorney Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) learns that most families in town have lost children to suspicious accidents attributed to a ghostly woman in black. Most adults are prickly and spooked when asked about the woman, save Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), a wealthy townsman who dismisses the story and invites Kipps to stay with him and his mentally unstable wife, Elizabeth (Janet McTeer), while Kipps closes the estate.
The gloomy English landscape, which recalls foggy The Others, is its own character. Shadows and dark corners abound in the aging manor, and the nearby woods are dense and claustrophobic. Kipps is also trapped at the manor for several hours each day when the tide covers the surrounding marsh and only road back to town. At its core, The Woman in Black is standard haunted-house horror, and there are plenty of scenes where Kipps creeps through creaky corridors. The production design is certainly a step above, and the house is filled with macabre monkey and clown figurines, old newspapers and letters and - since the film takes place in the late 1800s - flickering candles.
Radcliffe takes the role seriously, and proves adept at actually appearing frightened. Kipps wants only to return to his young son, and the supernatural drama is but a roadblock to getting paid. The story of the woman in black is nothing unexpected, but the child suicides are a twisted treat. The Woman in Black sits firmly in PG-13 territory, but never panders to a young audience. The film is often quite intense, hitting the audience with rapid-fire jolts. Too often, the film relies on screeching effects - a crow taking flight and a faucet erupting - to startle, but the more effective scares come when The Woman in Black is quiet.
Although the build-up is somewhat slow, The Woman in Black wisely avoids giving too much away too quickly. This keeps the audience in the dark, and early scenes benefit from the mystery. The story has been told before, but the addition of Watkins' solid direction, Radcliffe's committed performance, and more than a few solid scares elevate The Woman in Black above most genre horror films.
Sony delivers another excellent transfer with The Woman in Black. The 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image consistently appears film-like, with excellent texture supporting the period costumes and setting. Detail is abundant, and every button on Radcliffe's overcoat, leaf on the trees outside the manor, and ghostly apparition is visible in great clarity. This is a dark film with a dull color scheme, but the impressive production design lends The Woman in Black a stately appearance. Blacks are inky and only rarely crush, and the different shades of black in shadows and on clothing are easily distinguishable. There are no problems with aliasing or compression noise, and the layer of grain is consistent.
This 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track more than once caused me to jump after a jolt scare. These stingers are loud and bombastic, but never overpower the dialogue and score. Clarity is excellent, and softer scenes are easily understandable. Range is expansive given the horror-film sound design, and quite a few spooky and ambient effects find the surround speakers. The Woman in Black is a truly immersive experience. English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release comes in a standard Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in a glossy slipcover. Sony includes a code to steam an UltraViolet digital copy of the film. In the Audio commentary from Director James Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman, the pair speaks about adapting the movie from Susan Hill's novel, and explains that they wanted to scare the audience without using buckets of blood and gore. Inside the Perfect Thriller: Making The Woman in Black (9:31/HD) sees the cast and crew discussing the project, and features behind-the-scenes footage of the film's shocks and scares. Radcliffe and the filmmakers discuss the lead character in No Fear: Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps (4:04/HD), and Sony throws in a couple of bonus previews.
The Woman in Black is a pleasantly creepy haunted-house horror film in which Daniel Radcliffe investigates the disappearance of a town's children. Old-fashioned spooks are occasionally overwhelmed by silly jump scares, but Radcliffe sells the terror while wading through an isolated English manor. Sony's Blu-ray is technically excellent, but lacks substantial extra features. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.