Daniel Radcliffe has spent most of his cinematic career battling supernatural forces of one sort or another, so in some respects, The Woman In Black, Radcliffe’s first film role since graduating Hogwarts and leaving Harry Potter behind, is only a baby step away from the familiar for him. An unapologetically old-fashioned haunted-house story—produced, in part, by the revived UK horror institution Hammer Films—the film finds Radcliffe dealing with ghosts, ghouls, and things that go bump in the night without the benefit of an “Exorciso!” spell to keep them at bay. Radcliffe segues easily into the grown-up role, deepening the world-weary expression he wore in the later Potter films, and creating a lot of tension simply by reacting to the creepy things around him. It’s a good thing, too, since without Radcliffe at the center looking scared out of his wits, The Woman In Black would seem even slighter than it already does.
That slightness comes in spite of the relentlessly portentous atmosphere created by director James Watkins, working from Jane Goldman’s adaptation of a Susan Hill novel. Playing an early-20th-century-London widower with a young son, Radcliffe looks troubled even before he travels to the remote seaside village adjacent to the wonderfully, appropriately named Eel Marsh House, a decaying mansion packed with creepy Victorian bric-a-brac, and cut off from the mainland whenever the tide comes in. He’s traveled there to sort through a bunch of papers left behind by the house’s late owner, only to discover that the villagers really don’t want him around. In fact, they stop just short of running him out of town on a rail, in spite of a friendly welcome from a wealthy local played by Ciarán Hinds. Turns out everyone would just prefer to forget about Eel Marsh House, and that the children in town have a way of dying under mysterious circumstances. Not that anyone’s eager to help Radcliffe connect the dots between the two.
That’s an intriguing setup for a traditional horror film, and for a while, it looks as if Watkins will make something of it. The film makes Eel Marsh feel increasingly terrifying, and the surplus of dead-eyed dolls and unsettling windup toys nicely complement the film’s bold use of darkness and muted colors. Then the ghosts turn up, and while The Woman In Black deserves some credit for being undeniably scary, it gets its scares on the cheap, relying on hoary tricks like ghostly faces popping out of the unfilled spaces behind characters, then underscoring the jolts with obnoxious “gotcha” noises. It’s scary, but it’s the easy sort of scary.
The story falls apart after a while, too. As Radcliffe unravels the mystery, it becomes apparent just how little there is to the mystery of Eel Marsh. And never more so than in a final act that finds Radcliffe and Hinds making silly leaps in applying logic to the question of what makes ghosts tick. There’s room in the world for this sort of old-dark-house story, especially now that the recent run of slasher remakes has exhausted itself, and with the Paranormal Activity series and Insidious, horror seems to be experiencing a back-to-basics moment. But making scares stick means more than just building a spook house, shoving audiences into it, and hoping for the best.