“The Woman in Black” understands dread very, very well.
The movie, starring Daniel Radcliffe making an admirable, moderately successful attempt at being someone other than Harry Potter, is a slow-building, surprisingly effective ghost story that goes almost entirely against the conventions of most modern horror movies.
Though there are a few screaming jumps at the screen and one startling moment where blood makes an appearance, the movies strongest terrors are found in horrible things half-seen out of the corner of your eye and silences so heavy they seem almost eager for a scream.
It’s a low-key approach that works far better than I ever imagined it would. “The Exorcist” and “Paranormal Activity” didn’t faze me a bit, but by the last third of “The Woman in Black” I was huddled under my coat like a scared five-year-old clutching a blanket. Had I been sensible enough to bring someone with me – a good idea, though make sure they know what they’re in for – I’m pretty sure I would have clutched their arm hard enough to cut off circulation.
None of this is evident in the first few minutes of the movie, which manages to start out both grim and oddly innocuous. Spilling too many secrets in advance ruins a ghost story, but it is safe to say that Daniel Radcliffe plays an utterly depressed young lawyer whose wife died in childbirth. Four years later he’s still grieving for her, and though Radcliffe is just barely old enough to pull the timing off (I had to keep reminding myself he’s in his early 20s now) the actor’s big, haunted eyes communicate that grief far better than any dialogue could have.
You believed that his character understood death, and suffering, which made him seem painfully at home in the ghost’s closed-up, suffocated world of loss and pain.
It’s the same feeling that’s infused what has to be the greyest, most silent town in London, which Radcliffe’s character has been sent to in order to keep his job. It’s clear from the first moment that they’re keeping a terrible secret, and the few villagers we see for any length of time project a constant, unspecified fear that set the imagination working. For a long time you’re not sure what’s wrong, but it’s got to be horrible to have such a grip on so many people.
In the end, of course, the movie has to show its monster, and like all movie terrors is somehow not quite as scary when you finally see it clearly. Its biggest trick, however, is to take the monster away again and make it the biggest scare of all.
After all, nightmares do their worst when you can’t see them coming.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material and disturbing images