Thursday, February 09, 2012

Culture Shock 02.09.12: 'Woman in Black' is showcase for post-Potter Radcliffe

The boy who lived is now the man who survived.

He has graduated from Hogwarts, but Daniel Radcliffe is still facing supernatural threats in his first post-Potter film, "The Woman in Black."

In this Edwardian period piece, Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young widower left alone — if you don't count the nanny — to care for his now 4-year-old son following his wife's death in childbirth.

Arthur survived his late wife, but you sense part of him wishes he hadn't.

In the years since his wife's death, Kipps' position at the law firm where he is employed as a lawyer has declined, along with the quality of his work, and he now has one last chance to redeem himself, keep his job and maintain a household for his son.

That means journeying to the countryside to put into order the estate of a recently deceased client, Alice Drablow. But when he arrives in the village near Drablow's crumbling, overgrown house — located deep in a saltwater marsh and cut off from civilization during the high tide — he finds uncooperative villagers and a local attorney who is trying his best to send Arthur packing back to London on the very next train.

You'd think Arthur was in town to visit Castle Dracula.

What the villagers know and Arthur is about to find out, is Drablow's old house is haunted, and the ghostly Woman in Black who haunts it has cursed the village.

Alas, there are no magic spells that can help our hero this time.

From its period setting to its gothic atmosphere to its suspicious villagers, "The Woman in Black" is a quaintly old-fashioned ghost story, hitting all the familiar notes but doing so with such skill it's hard to complain.

This is the movie we've been waiting for the revived Hammer Films to make.

After an unnecessary remake ("Let Me In") and missteps like the Hilary Swank-starring thriller "The Resident," Hammer is back in its element — even if "The Woman in Black" is sorely missing the crimson "Kensington Gore" blood spatter that so enlivened Hammer horrors of old, such as Christopher Lee's Dracula films.

This is almost the kind of movie Hammer made in the 1950s and '60s, but not quite. There are no busty Hammer scream queens with plunging necklines here (a shame, really), and there's no climatic action scene of the sort Dracula and Professor Van Helsing used to provide.

Director James Watkins, in only his second feature, opts for a more sedate approach with his adaption of Susan Hill's chilling novel — perhaps too sedate, as the slow burn is sometimes more slow than burn.

But it pays off in the movie's pervasive sense of dread — which follows Kipps through the dim, dusty corridors and out to the misty woods. Mood trumps gore every time.

The deliberate pacing also gives Radcliffe a chance to show us what he's got, and he delivers an understated performance that would make his Hammer predecessor Peter Cushing proud. Radcliffe's Arthur Kipps is a haunted man long before he sets foot on the marsh and glimpses the spectral woman who haunts the place.

Outside the estate's dreary ruins, the former Harry Potter is again aided by able British supporting actors, like Roger Allam as Kipps' boss and CiarĂ¡n Hinds as the village's one helpful and skeptical resident, Mr. Daily.

Naturally, however, Mr. Daily reeks of someone hiding a dark, terrible secret. It's that kind of movie — the kind of horror movie they don't make enough of anymore.

But with Hammer back, maybe this is just the beginning.

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