After several false starts and weak efforts, the much-promised revival of Hammer horror films has finally come to fruition with the release of The Woman in Black, an old-fashioned ghost story that ranks with the finest achievements of the legendary British production company. The story is set in the early 1900s. Daniel Radcliffe gives an excellent performance as Arthur Kipps, a young London-based lawyer who is already a widower, his beloved wife having died while giving birth to their son. Kipps tries his best to juggle being a single parent with the demands of his profession, but his unrelenting grief prevents him from fulfilling his duties at the office. His boss gives him one last chance to redeem himself by sending him to a remote village to investigate a complicated insurance situation relating to a recently deceased person. Arriving in the village, Kipps discovers that the relatively mundane task is fraught with intrigue. He suspects that the person he has to deal with is concealing vital paperwork concerning insurance claims. He decides to secretly act as detective and investigate the matter in a thorough manner. The trail leads to an abandoned mansion in a rural area where he locates a stash of relevant paperwork. While examining this mountain of evidence, Kipps glances out the window and catches a glimpse of a veiled woman clad in black standing in the overgrown garden. Soon, he finds himself terrorized by mysterious noises and apparitions and learns that the ghostly figure he has observed is somehow tied to a series of gruesome deaths among the children of the village. To say any more would divulge too much. Suffice it to say that, in the long Hammer tradition, the local villagers are paranoid about strangers and seem to be hiding a very dark secret. Kipps' only ally is Daily (Ciaran Hinds) who shares his determination to get to the bottom of the mystery, even while he cares for his wife (Janet McAteer) who is coping with a mental illness brought about by the tragic death of their own child.
The film was directed by James Watkins, an impressive new talent who wisely eschews special effects in favor of the theory that what you don't see can be more terrifying than what you do see. Watkins remains reverent to the early Hammer productions and manages to evoke quite a number of moments that will have you jump out of your seat. He benefits from an outstanding cast of supporting actors who have been chosen on the basis of their talents, not because they look like models. Both Ciaran Hinds and Janet McAteer are particularly excellent. Praise must also go to production designer Kave Quinn for her outstanding work on the old mansion set, aided immeasurably by the appropriately gloomy cinematography of Tim Maurice-Jones and the atmospheric score by Marco Beltrami. Screenwriter Jane Goldman, working from the source novel by Susan Hill, keeps the dialogue literate and intelligent and the character of Kipps sympathetic and completely believable. He is no super hero. Yes, he doesn't shirk from investigating things that go bump in the night, but he looks pretty petrified while doing so. The film comes to a climax that is quite chilling and most unexpected. Suffice it to say, The Woman in Black recalls the best of the haunted house genre that comprises of such films as the original version of The Haunting, The Innocents and The Others.
Sony has released the film as a Blu-ray edition with commentary by James Watkins and Jane Goldman. The disc contains two bonus features: Inside the Perfect Thriller, which examines the overall making of the movie through cast and crew interviews and No Fear: Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, wherein the actor shares insights about the inspirations for his performance. (Curiously, the film's trailer is not included, though trailers for other releases are). One of the great delights is seeing a dynamic new Hammer logo at the beginning of the film that utilizes classic movie poster art from the golden age of the company. The Woman in Black bodes well for Hammer's comeback. If they can keep up the quality of the productions, they can play a major factor in revitalizing the sorrowful state of the horror film genre, which has largely deteriorated into mindless slasher films. One tip: if you watch the film alone, make sure you keep the lights on.