Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Woman in Black: The New Hammer Adapts Susan Hill

Arthur Kipps' assignment sounds like a nightmare from Hell: one solid week of paperwork. He is supposed to organize the ratty old papers of the late Alice Drabow, the former owner of Eel Marsh House. Frankly, the visitation of a vengeful ghostly woman sounds like a welcome distraction from such drudgery, but unfortunately, her appearances are a harbinger for yet another child dying in the beleaguered local village. Despite the tragedies, poor Kipps still has to get all those blasted papers in order in James Watkins’ Hammer-produced The Woman in Black, which airs Thursday on Comet.

Kipps’ beloved wife died in childbirth, leaving him to raise their son Joseph on his own. The senior partner of his proper Edwardian firm says he is sympathetic to Kipps’ situation, which means he really isn’t. Regardless, Kipps must sort out the Drabow estate if he is to have a future with the firm. Unfortunately, the local solicitor has been decidedly uncooperative, so Kipps must go to Eel Marsh House and process all the paperwork, so they can clear the title for the prospective heirs.

Of course, he receives a nasty welcome from all the locals, except the wealthy and skeptical Sam Daily. Yet, he too lost his young son in an incident attributed to the Woman in Black. According to legend, whenever she is seen, a child dies through an act of self-destruction. As a result, Kipps only makes things worse for himself in the village when he asks about the strange woman he has seen around the Eel Marsh grounds. Children do indeed start dying, which is especially alarming to him, since Joseph and his nanny are scheduled to visit over the weekend.

Woman in Black
is an entertaining gothic throwback, which made it an altogether fitting production for the relaunched Hammer Films. As well as channeling vintage Hammer, Watkins also picked up a step or two from films like Bayona’s The Orphanage, using the full frame to tease viewers with shadowy figures, half-seen from down long hallways. Yet, the wonderfully lush and decaying set designs are pure vintage Hammer. Plus, the isolation of Eel Marsh House, built atop a rise in tidal basin that is inaccessible during high tide, lends the film additional claustrophobic creepiness.

Since Daniel Radcliffe now shuns J.K.
Rowling as a heretic who should be burned at the stake, this could be his new favorite film. It is the second screen adaptation of Hill’s novel, following a 1989 BBC production, and the first to spawn an original sequel. It is refreshingly atmospheric and suggestive, rather than bluntly gory.

Although Radcliffe was
Woman in Black’s biggest selling point at the time, he is almost too mousy and drippy to lead the film, but not to the extent of ever undermining the chilling suspense. However, Ciaran Hinds is absolutely perfectly cast as Sam Daily. Honestly, he looks like he could have walked out of a vintage Hammer film. He also brings a surprising degree of sensitive complexity to the grieving father. (It is worth noting how good he was in the ghostly-themed The Eclipse too.)

It turns out the combination of Hammer Films and Susan Hill’s classic was too apt a match to fail. Radcliffe did his best to keep up, while veterans like Hinds, Janet McTeer, and Roger Allam added plenty of class and character. Screenwriter Jane Goldman nicely translated Hill to the screen and Watkins maintained an appropriately eerie vibe. Highly recommended for fans of literate period horror,
The Woman in Black airs Thursday (9/1) on Comet TV.