Mention the name "Hammer Films" to horror fans and chances are a warm smile will wash across their faces as fog-shrouded visions of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing dance through their cobweb-covered synapses. Though the powerhouse British studio closed its doors in the mid-'80s -- followed by sporadic announcements of new projects continually hinting that a comeback was close at hand -- by the mid-2000s Hammer was finally getting back into the business of horror. Now, like Dracula rising from an extended slumber, Hammer resurrects the brand of seductively gothic chillers that were the studio's lifeblood throughout the 1960s and '70s. Those creaking doors and floorboards have never sounded more inviting.
After losing his beloved wife in childbirth, young barrister Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) was nearly consumed by grief. A tormented widower, he now raises his young son with the help of his devoted nanny. But Arthur is on the verge of losing his job when an important client of the firm dies, and his boss offers him one last opportunity to prove his worth by settling the woman's affairs. Determined to succeed, Arthur travels to the remote village where she lived and receives a chilly welcome. Something horrible once happened here, and it seems that the locals are determined to ensure Arthur never finds out what it was. Now, the more time Arthur spends in his client's crumbling estate, the more he becomes aware of a presence that isn't quite human. In this house dwells a woman's ghost; in life she lost something precious, and now in death she'll do whatever it takes to get it back. Until she does, her spectral presence will serve as a harbinger of doom, always to be followed by the death of an innocent.
Fans of traditional gothic horror will find plenty to love about The Woman in Black. With a plot centering on an old house, a grim tragedy that set into motion a disturbing series of events, superstitious townspeople, a malevolent ghost, and an unsuspecting outsider who becomes obsessed with solving a supernatural mystery, it's got all of the familiar trappings -- served with thick atmosphere and a rich, dark style (courtesy of veteran cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones, who gives the candlelit, shadow-strewn hallways in the decaying mansion a distinctly ominous ambience). Likewise, with his pasty complexion, distinctly chiseled jaw, and ability to look completely natural in period clothing, Radcliffe makes for a protagonist one could easily picture sharing the screen with Ralph Bates or Shane Briant. As a wealthy couple who experienced a devastating loss, co-stars Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer also stand out as Arthur's only allies in a village where outsiders are systematically shunned.
Despite a distracting overreliance on jump scares during the setup, The Woman in Black does an impressive job of building an aura of dread once the plot begins to unfold, with an extended sequence during an overnight stay in the mansion offering a handful of genuinely hair-raising moments. And once the story gains momentum, director James Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman keep the shocks rolling in at a satisfying pace. Though a few of the plot points may feel a bit too convenient, it's easy to forgive the script for its few minor shortcomings due to the fact that Watkins and company pile on so much eerie imagery (including a room full of nightmarish musical dolls that would almost qualify as child abuse if placed in a youngster's room) that we can't help but get caught up in the morbid mystery. Meanwhile, with its gratifying yet uncompromising coda, The Woman in Black remains true to form right to the bitter end, offering hope that if Hammer can continue to rebuild, the studio may well be headed toward a second golden age.
The Woman in Black on AllMovie
The Woman in Black (2012)