345-Word Reviews: The Woman in Black

One of the more successful efforts to buff up the Hammer Films brand, The Woman in Black gives Daniel Radcliffe the role of the respectable gent given the challenge of focusing on his paperwork in a place of mystery and dread, surrounding by superstitious rubes who pop up to tell him he’s not welcome round these parts. Forty years ago, this part might have been played by Ralph Bates, but now its a vehicle for the ex-Potter to show whether he can branch out. Most of the film consists of Radcliffe, his lower jaw determinedly jutting out with the tension of it all, exploring a tricked-out, pop-up house filled with spooky Victoriana. The obligatory shots of pale faces peering mournfully out of upper-floor windows are also given a good airing.

The trappings of the abandoned 19th-century nursery (broken dolls, rocking chairs, staring-eyed portrait paintings, clockwork toys) have become the visual shorthand for uncanny terror, the return of a repressed childhood trauma none of us can actually remember. These are the hard, unhuggable toys invested with the memories of games with long-dead children (that the film is about dead young ‘uns only compounds the creepy connotations), superstitious markers of the end that awaits us all: we will be outlived by our stuff. There is potential shock built into the mechanism of a moving toy: haunted house movies are all about anticipating movement in inert things and, to paraphrase Chekhov, you know that the wind-up monkey automaton from the first act is going to spring into life before the last.

Scares are effectively engineered by James Watkins (director of chavsploitation outing Eden Lake), and I must admit that my buttons were successfully poked with a cold finger a few times, but we race so swiftly from one jolt to the next that there’s little modulation between quiet repose and skin-jumping shockery. Like any good ghost story, it sets up a contest between rational and supernatural interpretations of paranormal phenomena but, as usual, rational explanations, which tend to make for less unsettling horror movies, don’t stand a chance.

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One thought on “345-Word Reviews: The Woman in Black

  1. In the film, The Ring, the ghost appears in the frightening final scene, as a disembodied video image (the television screen as it’s body). In the TV series, Supernatural, the same technique will be attempted. The ghost will appear to be in one place, and then suddenly elsewhere, typically closer to their victim. In an instant. What disturbs us, more so than the on screen victim, is both the violation of momentum, and it’s familiarity.

    Simultaneously a high frequency cut, a change in point of view, and the absence of such. A new point of view on the ghost becomes the ghost taking a new point of view on us. There is a breach of the safe position we otherwise occupy, when indulging a film. The film reverses who is watching who.

    But there is an even more frightening aspect. The ghost, like a film, can not see us. It is blind. The hair covering the girls face embodies this blindness. The ghost can only theorise where we sit. It can only assume our presence. And for that reason the ghost has no belief in us. We are a figment of it’s imagination, to be dismissed, in the same way we might otherwise dismiss a film. The terror we feel is this connect in one direction and a disconnect in the other. There is no way of communicating with this ghost. Pleading with it. We can see the ghost but it can’t see us. Any cry for mercy, from us, will fall on deaf ears. But insofar as we can see it and have been circling around it the entire film, the ghost knows how to find us. To triangulate us like players in the game of battleship. And with the same instantaneous power to alter it’s point of view we had ourselves entertained when circling it.

    This kind of horror is native to the cinema.

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