Horror is a tricky genre for both stage and screen. It relies, perhaps more than any other genre, on emotion – evoking a gut-level, sometimes primal terror that makes the viewer forget, just for a moment, that they’re in a playhouse or movie theater. “The Woman in Black,” which opens today, aims to replicate the success of its literary and theatrical versions on the big screen – which would be no small feat, since the theatrical adaptation of The Woman in Black has been in continuous performance on London’s West End since 1989 (making it the second longest-running play in West End history, behind only Agatha Christie’s immortal The Mousetrap).
There are many reasons that The Woman in Black has been such a massive theatrical success, but of the play’s many salient qualities, one stands out: its economy. Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation pares the story of The Woman in Black down to its barest parts, with each performance requiring only two actors and a handful of theatrical effects. The Woman in Black achieves this economy with a clever framing device, in which the elder protagonist Arthur Kipps hires an actor to play “Arthur Kipps” in a play about the mysterious events surrounding the malevolent “woman in black” that dominated his life decades earlier. As the real Kipps uses the hired “Kipps” as a prop to tell his horrifying story, the sins of the past begin to creep into the present – leading to a chilling twist ending (which I won’t spoil here).
Fans of The Woman in Black on stage may be surprised to find that the trappings of the stage version are all but unrecognizable; cinematically, “The Woman in Black” dispenses with the play’s framing device altogether, with Arthur Kipps’ story playing out in real time on-screen. Some of the most memorable images from the play appear once again in the film – including a self-rocking chair and a thick blanket of British fog – but in this version, Kipps is a young man, and the “Actor” who helps him tell the story is nowhere to be seen.
Kipps is played here – and played well – by Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame, who has also recently appeared on stage in productions of Equus and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. The film, which is set during the early 20th century, begins as Kipps is called to a small English town to settle the legal affairs of the wealthy, deceased Alice Drablow. After he arrives, he finds himself shunned by the townspeople and drawn to Drablow’s isolated, mysterious estate – where shadowy figures appear to haunt his every waking moment.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay “The Woman in Black” is that, despite the story’s relatively recent genesis in the 1983 novel of the same name by Susan Hill, it feels like a very old (and classically old-fashioned) scary story at its very core. In both plot and execution, this is a Gothic thriller that has far more in common with Universal Studios’ classic horror films of the 1930s than the gory torture-fests that have dominated the genre in recent years. The titular woman in black is a ghostlike, malevolent force, appearing without warning to cast a permanent pall over the lives of the superstitious townsfolk. This is a film of grays and blacks, both aesthetically and morally, as Kipps’ attempts to reconcile the tragedies of the past only beget more tragedy for the present.
The film’s central set piece – the horror equivalent of a Broadway showstopper – is a long, wordless sequence that takes places in Drablow’s mansion, where Kipps has elected to spend the night. It goes about as well as you’d expect. As Kipps fumbles through the corridors, facing flickering lights and bumps in the night, “The Woman in Black” reaches a kind of fever pitch. It would be difficult to anyone sitting through this film without at least a single startled jump, and the average viewer can probably expect quite a few more (for my part there were at least a half-dozen).
But “The Woman in Black” is also surprisingly, refreshingly bloodless. This is the rare contemporary horror film which realizes that being scared and being disgusted don’t go hand-in-hand. Though there are occasional disturbing images – a hanged woman, a young girl being burned alive – the moments of horror are, like the stage play before it, eerie and suggestive without being unduly graphic.
By the time that Kipps has solved the mystery at the heart of “The Woman in Black,” you’ll probably have solved it too. The pleasure here lies in the film’s journey, though there’s something to be said for the film’s destination. I’ll leave you to discover it, though I suspect it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Kipps would have been wise to heed the superstitious fears of the townsfolk (if curiosity kills the cat, imagine what it can do to a dapper young solicitor). But courageous audiences, unlike Kipps, will enjoy ride. For fans of the novel or play – or anyone with a taste for classic Gothic horror – “The Woman in Black” shouldn’t be missed.
“The Woman in Black” opens in general release today, February 3, 2012.
“The Woman in Black”
Directed by James Watkins
Screenplay by Jane Goldman
Based on the novel by Susan Hill
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer, and Ciaran Hinds
Runtime: 95 minutes