Friday, 3 February 2012

THE WOMAN IN BLACK - Review by Greg Klymkiw: This attempt to rekindle the atmospheric glory of Hammer Horror films pretty much flops. Good intentions are not enough. Sometimes movies need something resembling a real filmmaker at the helm. Besides, what defines Hammer Horror? Daniel Radcliffe Porn or Christopher Lee ogling a heaving bosom and tender neckline?

The Woman in Black (2012)
dir. James Watkins
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer


By Greg Klymkiw

Hell, as the influential man of letters Samuel Johnson was quoted as saying in Boswell's late 18th century biography, is paved with good intentions. Chances are pretty good that Johnson, if transported via time machine to the present might well have equated the act of sitting through the new James Watkins-directed film version of Susan Hill's insanely over-regarded novel as being paved with the same good intentions. Alack and alas, the roiling lava of the aforementioned Mephistophelean domicile is hardly a suitable mortar when the construction chief is a woefully unimaginative by-the-numbers (when he's able to actually put two and two together) hack.

The Woman in Black is a decent enough ghost story, adapted here by the normally reliable screenwriter Jane (Kick-Ass) Goldman and featuring a pleasing post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe as the tortured leading man. The unfortunate fact of the matter though, is that director James Watkins is at best, bland, and at worst, hampered with a set of tin eyes. Watkins gives it the old college try, but falls painfully short of what this movie might have been if directed by someone endowed with even a smidgen of style and a sense of humour.

This lackadaisical horror movie, in spite of its lofty goals in the portentous atmosphere sweepstakes, settles for occasional cheapjack chair-tossers whilst alternatively providing yummy shots of the very pretty Mr. Radcliffe to respectively elicit screams of terror and lust from its primary demographic - the same tween-er, teener and twenty-er-something members of the "weaker sex" (in the parlance of those days of yore when such tales are oft set), who pathetically continue to look for their thrills amidst the dross of such lame items as the execrable Twilight series.

On the surface, I have little quarrel with the narrative. The widowed young 19th-century London`lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) journeys to a small town in north country to save his ailing career and settle an estate which, not surprisingly, bears a heavy curse that befalls anyone who spies the creepy title apparition. The tragic death of a child is the result when anyone catches a glimpse of the funereally-attired residue of ectoplasm. Arthur, spending an insanely inordinate amount of time within the walls of the crumbling and creepy Victorian manse, the evocatively-named Eel Marsh House, gets not one, but several up-close-and-personal ocular treats of this pseudo-J-Horror ghost.

Well, gosh darn it all, this is enough to create a few deaths of children in the village, but worst of all, the fey, tortured Mr. Kipps is a single father to a winsomely cute tyke who will be visiting the northern English countryside with his Nanny.

Yikes! We can see what's coming a few miles away. (This is not, by the way, a narrative flaw, but one that could have fuelled the proverbial fire if the film had actually been directed.)

Kipps receives the helpful assistance of Mr. Daily (Ciarán Hinds), a friendly country gent who also lost a child many moons ago under similar circumstances, but eschews the superstitions plaguing the local townsfolk and laments how the said back-country hayseeds' belief in the ghost has influenced his wife (Janet McTeer) to the point where she's been driven completely bonkers.

The goal, as in many ghostly tales, is to right a wrong to put the malevolent spirit on its way to the white light - hopefully ending the curse. (I must admit, though, to always wondering why nasty ghosts engaging in all manner of evil behaviour wouldn't end up in Hell instead of the open arms of Jesus H. Christ?)

So what's the problem?

Decent story + good acting + decent production value SHOULD = Good Movie.

Ya' think?

Well, if said movie is rendered by a director with no discernible style, the results are dire. Some critics and genre geeks have extolled James Watkins's direction of his previous film Eden Lake. I had little use for the movie. It was a by-rote and moronically written wilderness thriller with a camping couple (the male half played by the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender) being terrorized by thugs - lower drawer Deliverance material at best and yet, on the basis of this lame picture he's handed an opportunity to direct a pretty decent screenplay by Jane Goldman (though in fairness to the great writer Nigel Kneale, I rather preferred HIS screenplay for the much-better British television version of the tale made in 1989).

What, pray tell, is happening in commercial cinema these days?

Hacks with no voice are becoming the order of the day.

This is especially disappointing here.

I'm no fan of the novel, but it's reasonably readable crap that provided a decent enough groundwork for the solid TV movie from Blighty, the second-longest running play behind Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" and could have made for an excellent addition to the canon of the newly resurrected Hammer Horror company. To date, however, the contemporary Hammer output has been a major disappointment save for the decent Let Me In, a well crafted, though utterly unnecessary English-language remake of Tomas (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) Alfredson's great Swedish original Let The Right One In.

Much has been made about the early Hammer output in terms of its atmospheric horror and while I will not dispute its value in that regard, let's also not forget that some of the greatest pictures it delivered were replete with globs of dry and/or dark humour, tasty dollops of garish colour in the mise-en-scene (especially in those Hammers directed by Terence Fisher), endless views of milky heaving bosoms and great actors working overtime to provide - on the hero front: the crazed business of Peter Cushing, and on the villain front: the sheer, sex-drenched malevolence of the cooler-than-cool Christopher Lee.

And the production value was impeccable. Though the movies were cheaply made, they never looked it. Again, so much of this was delivered by stylish filmmakers like Fisher or the magnificent cinematographer Freddie Francis who on many occasions dabbled/doubled at the Hammer studios as a director.

The production value on display in The Woman in Black is not without merit, but it's wasted in the hands of the tin-eyed director Watkins. The camera is either in the wrong place at the wrong time, or worse, it's resting easy on the side of competence. I don't necessarily want to blame cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones for the murky, milky look of the movie - he's done great work with real directors in the past - but this movie never once comes close to the pulpy colour palettes of the classic Hammer pictures. It's all so very dreary and I can only assume this has more to do with Watkins's vision or lack thereof.

The most disturbing element in the movie has nothing to do with eliciting scares. It's the preponderance of Radcliffe-porn - pure and simple. For example, one of the first shots of the ghost in the house could/should have been a corker with Radcliffe in the foreground and the ghost just being there - creepily and horrifically in the background. Unfortunately, the angle seems slightly off for maximum dramatic/visceral impact and favours Radcliffe from a perspective that's more interested in making our dreamboat teen-throb as yummy as possible to the young ladies (and assorted gentlemen) in the audience. In fact, poor Radcliffe is almost in every shot of the movie and working his thespian tukhus off and sadly, it's all for nought - at least in terms of enabling the movie. Radcliffe becomes a stylishly attired schwance to be ogled, desired and deified.

The scares in the movie, such as they are, are not genuinely rooted in atmosphere, since so much of it is of the stock variety and without the panache needed to make it rise above a merely pallid reproduction. This leaves endless shock scares to elicit screams and/or jumps from the audience.


God knows the legendary Terence Fisher didn't need to rely solely on such dull cheapjack gimmicks - his horror was rooted in relentless bloodcurdling evil incarnate and bolstered by genuine style. It was voyeuristic, fetishistic and deliciously, exploitatively nasty. This is what was creepy and scary and yes, exciting! And whilst Fisher, Francis and all the other Hammer directors engaged in bosom-porn it had the creepy-crawly effect of eyeing the plunging cleavage of a female victim-to-be, then moving up along her heaving bosom and following the slender handsome hands of Christopher Lee as he cradled the lassie tenderly, eyeing her delectable neckline which he would eventually plunge his teeth into and suck and suck and suck as the young victim would swoon and writhe in orgasmic pleasure and pain.

This is the ATMOSPHERE of Hammer Horror - not murkily photographed swamps and graveyards and nooks and crannies of old houses. Oh yes, the aforementioned existed in Hammer Horror, but they were photographed with aplomb - crisp blacks, exquisite key lighting and splashes of crystal clear colour of the deepest, richest, gaudiest kind.

Never, oh never, would a Hammer Horror film indulge in the sort of boy-toy-porn as poor talented Daniel Radcliffe is subjected to in Watkins's abominable helmsmanship. Oh yes, traditional Hammer Horror was replete with handsome men, but they were wickedly, dangerously handsome.

And finally, the best Hammer Horror had humour - not of the tongue-in-cheek variety, but vicious, dark and always rooted in the melodrama. The Woman in Black is humourless as all get out. I mean, really. This is a movie with little kiddies dying. This could surely have engendered some horrendously nasty knee-slappers. (Much of this potential is actually there for the taking in Goldman's script, but Watkins is too much of a cinematic dullard to see it in order to exploit it.)

When young Mr. Kipps' cherubic lad shows up with nanny at the train station, I'd have been more than prepared to howl at the very sight with thoughts of potential carnage dancing about in my brain. God knows, Mr. Fisher might have elicited some yucks and certainly someone like Brian DePalma would have been all over this one.

Whilst one might argue that the movie is aimed almost solely at a female audience and requires a kinder and gentler approach than what Hammer traditionally stood for in its heyday, I sincerely believe this lack of vision and faith in truly adhering to the work of Terence Fisher et al, is precisely what's wrong with movies, and in particular horror movies these days.

Interestingly enough, Hammer in the 70s began to seem tremendously old fashioned in the wake of William Friedkin's The Exorcist and in terms of what nearly destroyed the company were increasing levels of sex, violence and visceral horror that skyrocketed well beyond anything Hammer was capable of delivering in its final throes. And now, here we are in a world where female audiences are offensively treated with kid gloves - as if they need to be handled daintily. If I were a woman, this would make my blood boil. In fact, I know plenty of women who detest how mostly male movie makers go out of their way to gentrify the horror experience and render it into a maw of mawkish sentiment.

Furthermore, as horrific as Friedkin's vision was, he actually rooted his horror in an approach pioneered by Val Lewton at RKO in the 40s. Lewton decided that two things were the scariest elements of all. Firstly, the dark scared the bejesus out of people and he infused his films with plenty of shadows. Secondly, and closer to the genuinely atmospheric horror of Friedkin's The Exorcist, is that Lewton believed elements of everyday life were the stuff of horror - mental illness, loneliness, cults, marital strife, disease, sickness, despair. Lewton blended these elements of contemporary life with literal darkness, just as Friedkin did (in spite of the delightful addition of spinning heads, vomit, foul language and crucifix masturbation). Who can ever forget the endless poking and prodding poor Linda Blair is subjected to at the hands of her doctors? Amidst the supernatural, Friedkin wrung every drop of Lewton's belief in here and now horror having as much power as green-pea soup spewing upon Max Von Sydow's face. The Woman in Black has these Lewton-esque elements, but none of them are properly exploited - primarily because Watkins has no style as a director, whereas as Lewton, Friedkin and the Fisher Hammers were ripe with a voice that went beyond mere craft.

Finally and sadly, The Woman in Black leaves me with one burning question.

I ask, in all seriousness:

What's the point of giving Radcliffe's child a comely nanny, but then not, in true Hammer Horror fashion, focus at some salient point, upon her bosom?

Well, that would be exploitative, now, wouldn't it?

In reality, though, The Woman in Black, in addition to its lack of style, is exploitative in a far more insidious fashion. It believes, promotes and exploits the fact that female audiences are far too delicate and genteel to serve up the real goods.

"The Woman in Black" is currently in wide release via Alliance Films and CBS Films.