Friday, February 17, 2012

Black Friday

Todd and I went on our second movie trip this past week. Originally I wasn't 100% certain what we were going to see, but with our shared love of all things science fiction, we were prepared to take in the 3D re-release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which had made its way into theaters over the weekend. While both of us (and most Star Wars fans) agree that it is nowhere close to the best film in the iconic George Lucas franchise, we both also agreed that "yeah, we'll see it" on the big screen given the chance. But when the witching hour came, there was a moment of doubt, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. Actually, what happened is that we had a change of heart. If there's one thing Todd loves more than sci fi, it's horror, and when the Poltergeist fan offhandedly mentioned The Woman in Black - the new film featuring everybody's favorite Hogwarts graduate Daniel Radcliffe - it suddenly opened the way for a new opportunity. Forgoing Lucas' special effects extravaganza (seriously, I should have learned my lesson the first time), she and I settled down for the old-school nitty gritty of a classical haunted house tale.

Yes, because taking on a ghost with an axe is SO smart...
Four years ago, the wife of Edwardian era lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) passed away giving birth to their young son. Today, Kipps is depressed, lonely, and something of an alcoholic, never getting over the circumstances surrounding the love of his life's death. Kipps is sent on a business trip to sort out the affairs of Eel Marsh House, a secluded mansion located in a tiny village in rural England, in a last chance to sort out his issues and emotional turmoil. While most of the locals can't wait to be rid of Kipps, he does gain an ally in Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds), the one man in the whole village who doesn't believe in the superstitious mumbo jumbo spoken aloud. And yet something evil undeniably permeates the small town; reports of a restless spirit haunting Eel Marsh House are followed by the tragic deaths of several local children. Despite the dangers, and the increasing hostility of the people in the village, Kipps makes it his mission to discover what force has taken residence in the foreboding house, and make things safe for the children again, even as he is due to be joined by his own young son in only a few days time.

Don't worry; he'll exorcise this spirit with MAGIC!
As just about anyone can tell you, Woman in Black is the first film to star Radcliffe since the last entry of the Harry Potter series was released this past fall. As for his appearance here, I am of two minds. The first is that Radcliffe does an amazing job playing a role about as far from that of his family-friendly wizard as it can possibly be. Playing a depressed widower to the level that he achieves would be a challenge for any veteran performer, and Radcliffe is incredibly impressive in his first role as a full-fledged adult. That being said, the 23-year old still looks like he should be in high school, and his baggy eyes and oh-so-lifelike facial fuzz do little to hide his youthful looks. It was quite the distraction, and while he does his absolute best to be involved with the story at hand, you can't help but notice how much more appropriate the film would be with magic wands and Rupert Grint.

...and The Joker demanded a do-over
Questionable lead casting aside, The Woman in Black remains a classic haunted house film. That "classic" adjective is unfortunately a hindrance as well as a help. I don't know if it has something to do with the story's origins as a novel by English author Susan Hill, or perhaps simply a lack of unique ideas by director James Watkins, but this film felt somewhat derivative of haunted house tales of yesteryear, with each plot point accentuated by the thought of having been seen somewhere else. If the source material is to blame, perhaps that's because The Woman in Black was published back in 1983, and a lot of horror films have been released in the time since. One that I was easily reminded of was 2002's The Ring, directed by Gore Verbinski. The Woman in Black is similar in theme, and even sports a similar ghost and ending; you can do worse than be akin to one of the scariest films of the new millennium. Still, this means The Woman in Black is nothing you haven't seen before, especially if you're already a huge fan of horror films.

Hey, look! Someone who isn't Daniel Radcliffe!
The rest of the cast is thankfully as good as Radcliffe, though they are certainly few in number. Ciaran Hinds surprised me by playing decent guy Sam Daily (he has more the look of a classic Bond villain), a wealthy land-owner who doesn't believe in ghost stories despite the tragic death of his own child. Academy Award nominee Janet McTeer also impresses as Daily's affected wife, who seems to suffer from dementia and believes herself a medium through which her deceased son speaks. She manages to steal every one of her scenes, and when she actually gets a chance to show off in the film (which is sadly little), they are among the best moments of the film. And Liz White is at times sympathetic and scary as the house's possessive spirit, perfectly capturing both the cheap and expensive scares needed to make this film a success.

...aaaand back to Daniel
And a success it is. While not as scary as say, last year's Insidious, The Woman in Black is a complete package of entertainment, with excellent atmosphere, wonderful acting, and insanely scary moments that keep you on the edge of your seat. If this film had been a teeny bit more original, it might have topped at #1, but landing at #4 for 2012 is no small feat, and I'd easily recommend this title for those horror fans who are looking for something more familiar and classic than what usually gets released these days, and it gets a few points for being done right.

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