Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The haunted house: The Woman in Black on DVD

Halloween is but a month away, and I’m already getting in the mood. Beyond the horrors of the election season, I need scary movies to take my mind off politics. So tonight I watched a movie just released on DVD.

Arthur Kipps is a haunted man, in a figurative sense. He is haunted by melancholy, and the memory of his wife, who died giving birth to his son.

Arthur imagines his dead wife in the mirror, pre-figuring his soon-to-be encounter with a real ghost.

Arthur is a solicitor, sent to a remote English village to settle the affairs of a deceased woman who owned a house on an island, approachable only by a causeway, and then only when the tide is out. The townspeople are suspicious, and want Arthur out of there. But the local rich man, Mr. Daily, befriends him and enables him to go about his job, which takes place in the spooky mansion called Eel Marsh.

The shot from the top of the stairs of Arthur entering the door from outside makes us wonder...is something watching him from  the second-floor landing?

Unfortunately, with Arthur disturbing the scene come the deaths of local children, caused by a mysterious and ghostly presence of a woman whose son was taken from her. The boy died in the marsh, his body never recovered.

The movie opens with the shocking scene of three little girls going out the window to their deaths.

Daniel Radcliffe, who is everybody’s favorite wizard, Harry Potter, does a fine job as Kipps, communicating depression, yet a strength and steely resolve to solve a mystery. Ciarán Hinds, as Daily, is a man who does not believe in ghosts nor superstition, yet lost his own son some years before to the ghost. It has sent his wife over the edge into mental illness.

The Woman in Black is a throwback to the old days of ghost stories that were creepy without showing blood and gore. I am of the old school. What’s really scary in a movie is not what is thrust at us wearing a hockey mask and wielding a chainsaw, but is a creepy and unknown presence…

A face in the window…it’s a cliché, part of the language of haunted house movies, but still effective.

A presence hidden in the dark, only making tentative and tantalizing appearances until pow! the suspense has become close to unbearable, and then, as in this movie, a shrieking apparition in a window sends us two feet out of our seats.


I recommend The Woman in Black for horror fans who like stories of vengeful spirits and haunted houses.

As I mentioned above, there are clichés. We’ve all seen enough haunted house movies to know there will be creaking floors, rocking chairs rocking with no one in them, a specter hanging from the rafters, and yes, this movie has all of those. But the overall mood is one of tension and suspense. Being an Anglophile, and British movie enthusiast, I give all credit to the Brits who made this movie. They have a certain understated way of building horror. The photography is eerie and moody, depending on muted colors and deep shadows. I am less enthusiastic about the unusual yet surprisingly upbeat ending, but in the context of the movie it makes sense.

The exterior of the mansion is a real house. (Interiors were filmed on a studio stage.) As Radcliffe explained in a “making-of” featurette with the DVD, the house was dressed down by trucking in loads of weeds, dead trees and rusting gates. He wondered how the owners felt when they saw the movie. There goes the neighborhood!

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