Friday, May 17, 2013

Film Friday: The Woman in Black (2012)

Every once in awhile, a movie surprises you. I can definitely say that’s the case with The Woman in Black. Let’s see, we have a low budget, clichéd, Victorian Era haunted house film staring Harry Potter and directed by a newbie. Yeah. This thing had “weak” and “derivative” written all over it. So imagine my surprise to find one of the best horror films in a very long time.

** spoiler alert **
The Woman in Black stars Daniel Radcliff as Arthur Kipps, a junior lawyer in a Victorian Era law firm who is about to be fired. His wife died giving birth to his son and he’s spent the next five years living aimlessly and distracted. As a last chance, his boss sends him to some podunk village in the middle of nowhere to handle the estate of a woman name Alice Drablow and to sell her house, a creepy place called the Eel Marsh House, which is situated in the middle of a marsh. She had just died.
When Kipps arrives in the village, he finds the locals to be extremely hostile. They all want him to leave immediately. But he needs to finish his job or he will be fired, so he proceeds to Marsh House. As he looks through Alice’s papers, he learns that Alice had a sister named Jennet Humfrye. Jennet was mentally disturbed and blamed Alice and her husband for her son dying in the marsh. They never found the body.

As Kipps works, he starts seeing signs of a young woman. For example, he sees a hand on a window and a shadow run across a room. Doors open and close and a rocking chair moves itself. He then returns to the town for the night. When he gets back to the town, a young girl dies in his arms. She poisoned herself. He then learns that most of the children in this town have died, always of suicides, and the townsfolk hate him because they think he’s started the wave of suicides to begin again. Kipps ignores them and returns to Marsh House where he soon finds himself playing cat and mouse with the ghost of Jennet, who seeks revenge against all she encounters by taking their children from them.
What A Well Done Film!
Ok, here are all the warning signs with this film: Radcliff was still fresh from Harry Potter, and it wasn’t clear he was up to anything else. The film was produced by Hammer, who make cheap and generally kitsch films. Never heard of the director. The critics called the film “traditional to a fault,” which reeks of clichés, and they said it wasn’t scary enough for modern audiences. The Victorian-Era setting also sounded like it would be a problem because we don’t relate to the way they handled their fears. But none of this turned out to be a problem because the director made some brilliant choices.
This film was directed by James Watkins who gets a ton of credit for taking the “creepy imagery” horror story we first saw with the wave of Japanese films like The Grudge and adding a layer of creep to it. He did this in two ways that I think merit discussion. First, he understood that distance adds to the creep factor. Most of the “creepy imagery” horror stories try to scare you by showing you creepy images, like undead kids standing in your living room. But after a quick scene or two, the directors invariably hike up the shock value by having the creature touching the hero or jumping in their face to scare them. While this is effective in stepping up the shock, it simultaneously wipes out the fear-of-the-unknown factor because now we see the thing and we know its intentions and the limits of its powers. All that creepy ambiguity and dreaded potential vanishes. Emotionally, this is the difference between being handed a wrapped gift and being handed an open box.

Watkins does it differently. He spends a lot more time with things happening at a distance. You will see a hand across the room against a window for a brief moment or an empty rocking chair at the other end of the room. You will see a shadow move across the other end of a hallway, a ghost walking toward the house from a grave, and a face appearing a few feet over Kipps’ shoulder. What this does is it gives you a sense that things are closing in on Kipps. That’s ominous and it keeps you thinking, “Run for your life before it’s too late!” By comparison, in The Grudge, your “flight instinct” never activates because you know she can’t escape the thing. Moreover, because of this approach, Watkins never gives us a good look at anything nor do we get a sense of its intentions or its powers until late in the film. That keeps the fear of the unknown running strong within us because we don’t know what the danger really is or how bad it could be. That’s instinctively horrifying to us. Lesser directors simply aren’t willing to be this patient.
Watkins also uses motion very effectively. Strangely, this is something you rarely see in the “creepy image” movies. I think the reason is that those directors focus on creating horrific single images for you to examine and they want you to think about that image, not the action of the scene. Watkins, by comparison, uses motion to show how Kipps is being surrounded. For example, you get to watch a ghost walking toward the house from a grave at one point; you are watching this from the second floor. Think about the horror of knowing that thing just entered the downstairs. Is it coming up the stairs? Has it blocked the exit? That is so much stronger than just seeing an image of the ghost somewhere in the house because it makes you feel that you are now trapped. Remember, when it just appears in the house, you invaded its turf, but seeing it enter the house means it’s hunting you. . . and it’s now between you and the door.

Another shot involves Kipps resting his eyes while he sits in a chair. As he does, we see a long hallway over his shoulder and we see a ghost start down the hallway toward him. . . and us. This is a great idea which builds terror with each passing second and it stuns me that you almost never see anyone do this on film. I don’t know why not. The one complaint I do have about that scene, however, is that Watkins changes the perspective very quickly from watching over Kipps’ shoulder to seeing from the ghost’s perspective. It was an effective scene, but it would have been so much more effective if you had been left to watch helplessly as the thing approached you.
Beyond the creeps, the other thing Watkins does is to keep the film from feeling like a giant cliché. I’ve said before that there’s nothing wrong with clichés if they are handled right. Clichés give us comfort. They are like sign posts of the familiar and they only become a problem if a film merely repeats the cliché as if this is somehow worthwhile. But so long as something new or different is done at critical moments, then the cliché works fine. That’s the case here.

For example, one of the oldest clichés in the book is the outsider who comes to the small village and is accused of bringing evil with them. This film starts that way as well with the villagers shunning Kipps as they believe he has restarted the wave of suicides. The cliché tells us that they will attack him at the worst possible time and thereby ironically help the ghost. Only they don’t. And when they don’t, it feels refreshing because you feel like the director isn’t just going to feed you clichés. The film is full of moments like this, where the cliché doesn’t happen.

Ok, let me add to the ** spoiler alert ** ... I’m going to discuss the ending now. Skip to the conclusion if you haven’t seen the film.

One of the biggest clichés in these films is that when you have a woman ghost, it’s because something happened to her child(ren). And once you reunite the ghost with the body of her missing child, everything ends happily. Of course, that’s after the titanic struggle where the hero gets knocked around by the ghost until the ghost sees the dead body and then rainbows appear. This film starts down that road, but it doesn’t turn out that way. In fact, one of the most refreshing aspects of this film is that it doesn’t devolve into a typical Hollywood CGI-extravaganza at the end. To the contrary, it keeps the feel of the film up to that point, with a low-key ending.
Moreover, I really liked the ambiguity at the very end of the film. My first thought on the ending was that Kipps had failed to solve the problem with Jennet. After all, getting killed along with your son sounds like a loss no matter how you score it. But then I began to wonder. Maybe he actually succeeded. It strikes me that the ending was meant to be positive because you see the family reunited. So either Jennet took her revenge but her revenge was ineffective because she inadvertently made him happy. . . or maybe this was Jennet’s way to reward Kipps? We know that Kipps’ life was meaningless without his wife, so maybe Jennet thought she would reward him by reuniting the family? Keep in mind that Jennet is a bit mental, so this might make more sense to her. Granted, that’s kind of rough on Kipps’ son, but I can’t say that he seems all that unhappy. So I’m left to wonder what the ending really means, but I suspect it means he did solve the problem. In any event, finding that kind of interesting intellectual twist at the end a movie that was much better than I expected, was quite a pleasant surprise.
All in all, this was an excellent film. It looked like it would be a poor film based on a cliché with bad acting and a high chance of a poor director, but it really didn’t turn out that way at all. I enjoyed this thoroughly. It gave me something to think about. It creeped me out at times. And I never once felt bored or disinterested. Is it the best horror film ever? No. But it is one of the best in a good long while.


Tennessee Jed said...

I find a lot of these low expectation films to be some of the best stuff being done now. I suppose there is some of the notion that with expectations low, it permits the viewer the joy of being pleasantly surprised. That said, I appreciate your review for detailing why the choices made by the film makers seem to work. Thanks for the review, and I'll keep an eye out for it. Good horror is a relatively rare commodity.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, You're welcome. I think you're right about the low expectation films, but I do want to stress that this is more than that too. I thought this was a genuinely good film all around, not just compared to expectations.

As an aside, I am actually finding lately that the low-budget stuff (formerly known as "independent film") is where the better films are being made. They don't seem to be as bound by the need to score a billion dollar hit, so they are still willing to take chances and do more interesting scripts. Plus, I suspect that things like a lack of a CGI budget helps many of these films.

Tennessee Jed said...

I would agree with you on both counts :)

AndrewPrice said...

I'll tell you, I've run across some really good/interesting films in the past year or two and they've all been small-budget films.

shawn said...

The wife and I went and saw this when it came out. It's a solid horror movie that is filled to the brim with spooky atmosphere. And as you said, the film's creepiness is a slow burn. Good performances from all involved, lovely sets and costumes, all in all, a nice change from all the torture-porn that has reigned supreme since Saw and Hostel have been inflicted upon us.

Ty in TX said...

I watched this on disc and was less than impressed. But now I'm suspecting that much like the Incredibles, it was my state of mind when watching the movie. The Incredibles is now one of my favorites.

I agree with you Andrew, atmosphere can do a great deal for a movie. Take The Haunting (please), much like the Star Wars prequels, it sacrificed story in exchange for a big CGI-nothon of stuff plastered to the screen. One could almost wonder if the producer and the director sat in the office planning this movie out and for every plot hole or gap, their response was: "Meh, We'll CGI something in....the kids will love it."

Now take The Others, low budget, almost now CGI, mostly practical effects and the far far superior product.

So much so that you ought to do one of your side by side comparisons if you don't review it separately. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, It's definitely a great change of pace from the torture porn and slasher flicks, which I'm entirely sick of. I never did like the torture porn at all and the slasher films are really dull. This was different.

AndrewPrice said...

Ty, Woman In Black definitely isn't my favorite, but I thought it was one of the best horror films to come along in a long time. It really stands out again all the slasher flicks they are doing today.

Give it a second chance, you might like it more.

Yeah... CGI. That's definitely one of my biggest frustrations with modern films. Rather than aid a film, CGI has become films and I tune out almost immediately once that starts. "Hey look at what our computer guys did! Look... shiny!" Zzzzzzz.

The Others is a fantastic horror movie in a similar vein to this one and I highly recommend it. I should definitely review that at some point. It has a fascinating twist to it.

T-Rav said...

My sister had kind of the same reaction to this as you. She went in thinking it wasn't going to be anything special; afterwards, she said she got really spooked by the movie--and my sister is not someone who gets spooked easily.

The talk about hallways and everything kinda reminds me of the two scenes from The Shining that freak me out no matter how many times I see the movie. In all these cases, there's a long distance between you and the ghosts; there's a tone of danger, but you're not close enough to look them in the eye. It's kind of that nameless dread thing.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, This is one of those films that really hits you in all the places that humans generally have fears. It doesn't just try to throw things at it, it actually works on things like our fear of the unknown, our fear of being boxed in, our fear of not being able to do something about a menace that is slowly approaching... deer in the headlights. It all adds up quite nicely in this. I was impressed.

I also appreciate that this film didn't just try to gross you out. Gore isn't scary, it's just disgusting. And this film doesn't try to substitute that to get a rise out of you.

Nice reference to The Shining because it does a lot of the same things. Kubrick in The Shining really knows how to use space to make you feel claustrophobic and like you're in an environment that is too large to be safe... too large to control or to monitor. Those are the types of things that I think generate real horror for the audience because they play on things that bother us at an instinctual level.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Sorry I'm late. My schedule is starting to get much, much busier and will continue that way throughout the summer.

Having said that, I have yet to see this film. I only glanced at the review lest I encounter spoilers.

I will say that I like Daniel Radcliffe - he seems to have a good head on his shoulders and hopefully he'll have a very successful career.

Re: the use of space mentioned above, while the film is not great, the director of Poltergeist III set the story in the city because he felt, rightfully so, that there's something scary when you're - not alone - but literally surrounded by people and no one can help you.

P.S. I know you're a fan - the indie label Scream! Factory will be releasing a Special Edition Blu-Ray of Prince of Darkness later this year.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I like Radcliffe as well, though I'm not fully sold on him as an actor yet.

I didn't realize the director of Poltergeist III had any sort of plan! ;P Seriously though, that is another good way to scare people. It's all about isolation.

Cool news on POD.

T-Rav said...

I think Radcliffe is probably a solid actor who did himself a real favor with this non-Harry Potter role....although on the other hand, there's "Equus."

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I haven't seen it, but he's definitely done a lot to move beyond Potter. I don't know yet if he can do it because he still looks so young, but I wish him well.

Ty in TX said...

Commenting on some of the comments:
Yes, I don't like gore either unless it's used wisely. Gore for gore's sake is just nauseating. But say when it's used to set up the wrongness of something, like walking into a nursery and everything is normal tun to look at a wall and there's a splash of blood on the wall. No you now there's something horribly wrong.

And as some here have mentioned The Shining does a great job of that in the "Come Play with us, Daniel." scene. I've seen that scene maybe a dozen times, but it weirds me out Each. Time. I. See. It. ::shudder::

I was trying to say about The Others but had a massive connection malfunction, it, The Devil's Backbone and 1941's The Uninvited are great horror movies for their use of atmosphere and dread and minimal use of ghosts. In fact, you only see the ghost 3 times in The Uninvited, but it makes an impact each time you see it.

AndrewPrice said...

Ty, I agree. Gore can create a very shocking image when it's unexpected and it's something that truly shocks us, like the example you give. But slasher flicks don't do that. They just splash gore everywhere and assume that showing you gross things will frighten you.

That is a great scene in The Shining, and what works about it is all the implied horror of it and the fact you can't do anything about it. The only thing you can do is flee the hotel and that's not an option.

In horror, what you don't show is typically more important that what you do show. The imagination is much more powerful than the images themselves.

Ty in TX said...

Andrew, exactly. And that's the tactic used in The Uninvited. Most of the movie is wilting flowers, balking pets, cold spots, odors with no source. The entire Haunted House experience. It's what you're not seeing that makes the atmosphere creepy and the story move.

And on a side note, has a good little mystery to solve too.b Though probably with today's audiences they'd see it coming from a mile away since everyone has done it since.

Oh well, the original is the best.

AndrewPrice said...

Ty, That's problem with modern audiences all around. They have learned all the tricks of the trade. So it's very hard to inject a legitimate mystery because the audience picks up all the clues right away and automatically knows what's going on. I think that's why twists are so popular because that's almost the only way to surprise a modern audience... barring something truly original.

John Johnson said...

This movie needed more scarejump-inducing loud sounds, scary camera shifts and screaming ghost appearances. Because after ten or so it's not enough. So why not add scary looking toys in the mix. It's not like one has to be original these days.

And Radcliffe the Dwarf? Well he was there standing with his gaping mouth. From the beginning to the very end. Even when he finally met his wife in death, he still looks like the soulless creature as he is.

Why the Woman in Black did this in the end? Well, the director/screenwriter was clear about it: because she's still evil. She won't forgive. So that should solve the most important remaining puzzle for some. I'm sorry Andrew, but there's nothing more to it. Kipps gambled wrong and failed.

AndrewPrice said...

John, No problem, I don't mind disagreement at all. I don't think this was the most amazing or creative film, but I do think it was original compared to what is out these days and I enjoyed it.

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