Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Squalor: The Woman in Black

The first time I saw The Woman in Black it was staged by a small Chicago theater company in a former funeral home.  The setting added an extra something, as did the lurking, random presence of the titular ghoul down the space’s aisle.  She would show up suddenly, drowned out by sound effects, standing stock still right next to your chair.  It was unsettling and, ultimately, a much more powerful aspect of the production than the story itself.  While the cinematic adaptation of the story zeroes in on the materializing apparitions, the fact that the woman is contained safely on the screen seems to somehow cheapen the other elements.  In the movie theater, I sat waiting for the jumpy thrills, mentally calculating exactly when the next was slated to occur, focusing too much on the fairly weak narrative elements bridging the gaps between hissing banshees.  That’s not to say it wasn’t any fun.  On a Friday night in a space packed with shrieking teenagers, The Woman in Black takes on new interactive properties.  Between the preteens inserting fart sounds into moments of silences, the young man who hollered personal attacks at the villainous woman, and the shrimpy kid who collected his belongings, loudly announced “I’m done with this f*cking movie, man” and stormed out angrily with the final plot twist – it was tremendously enjoyable.  Easily one of the best communal movie watching experiences I’ve had in some time.  Don’t bother seeing it at all unless you’re accompanied by an individual you know will leap five feet into the air at the sight of a sinister shadow…
While I have a noted, deranged, soft spot for the horror genre, I find evaluating these films as products outside of their genre to be an exercise in futility.  Analyze them for social issues all you want, but reviewing them as a good/bad movie?  Nonsense. We know that The Woman in Black isn’t really about character development, depth of feeling, narrative progress, or any sort of acting at all.  Similarly, we recognize that, while it’s Victorian, the art direction is an added bonus, a glossy coat of paint over something no more complicated than your found-footage Paranormal Activity.  Everything about The Woman in Black is part and parcel of the standard issue ghost story: the deaths are mysterious, the house is abandoned, things go bump in the night.  The film’s period trappings are mere distraction, adding a touch of staid tradition.  The story follows a young solicitor named Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a single father who is sent out of town to deal with the mess of paperwork left behind by the late mistress of the eerie Eel Marsh House.  This is Kipps’ last chance to preserve his job and support his family, so, when the locals warn against stepping foot on the estate, young Arthur doesn’t bother to listen.  Cue: whispers in the dark, discordant string notes, creepy old dolls, and yes, dark figures in the graveyard.  Um, don’t look now, but…she’s right behind you bro.
The Woman in Black is no The Innocents (but what is) and at the end of the day all we can ask is: was it competently handled –and- did it deliver the goods?  For the hyperactive preteen intent on hamming it up and nervously screeching, it may have.  For me?  Not so much.  While the scares are smartly timed, the specters themselves are stark examples of unoriginality.  After a few appearances, a pale face with deeply rouged eye sockets becomes quite tiresome, and I dare say I’ve seen better turn of the century spooks while touring about Disney’s Haunted Mansion.  As the film turns away from Kipps to focus on the ghosts themselves, there’s a reliance on atmospheric tension that barely builds.  We watch Kipps wander the house alone, we watch him do it again, we watch him try once more.  What’s at stake here?  Why is he so daft?  If our solo protagonist doesn’t appear to actively fear for his own well-being, how can we be?  While Radcliffe fares well enough in the dark house (can we call this Harry Potter and the Ghostly Paperwork?), and certainly has practice reacting to supernatural events, he seems out of place as Arthur Kipps.  As a “next step” post-Potter, Radcliffe seems to be used more as a piece of scenery than a grown-up actor.  Here he has a 4-year old son, a deceased wife, a dour face, and a couple proper suits, yet, while standing next to Ciaran Hinds…he looks rather like an uncomfortable 15-year old in his father’s clothes.  While part of the fun of watching the film is perhaps derived from the Harry Potter references that can be made, a horror film about a steadfast employee needs more to sustain itself than creepy kids and dark shadows.  Ultimately, the pay-off (for Kipps and the audience) is perhaps too dissatisfying to warrant the overtime.

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