Search This Blog

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 23: The Woman in Black (2012)

Written by Jane Goldman, from the novel by Susan Hill
Directed by James Watkins

Daniel Radcliffe:  Arthur Kipps
Ciaran Hinds:  Sam Daily
Janet McTeer:  Mrs. Elizabeth Daily
Liz White:  Jennet Humfrye

Well, thanks to the alphabet and my existing DVD collection, I got to review two Hammer Studios films back to back this HubrisWeen. I should have looked for one from the beginning of their existence that started with U so I could go for a triple play. Ah well, I'm perfectly satisfied with one Hammer, two Hammer, old Hammer and new Hammer.

I know I've said repeatedly in my reviews that fads drive trends in horror movies; there was the slasher boom in the 1980s and the zombies taking over pop culture in the 2000s (when Brad Pitt can make a $200,000,000 zombie movie they're officially part of the mass culture). Today's movie is defined much more by its opposition to the early 2010s horror trends, rather than its use of them. It's a period piece about an angry ghost in England, and the horror is focused on the survivors of the supernatural attacks rather than the victims. The protagonist is a grieving career-minded lawyer trying to save his job. In short, nothing at all like the "quit hitting yourself" serial killer in the Saw series and even less like the found footage scares in the Paranormal Activity franchise. And, thank Cthulhu, not a single sparkly vampire to be found at any point in the film. It's odd to say this about a movie with a vicious homicidal ghost in it, but it's a real breath of fresh air.

The film starts with slow-motion (and therefore eerie) silent footage of three girls in clothing reminiscent of the early 20th century having a tea party in an attic; they look at something in the corner in unison--the camera occupying the space of whatever it is they've seen--and then stand up, walk to the windows, and leap to their deaths. All silently, all in lockstep with each other. Seconds after they disappear from view, a woman's voice screams in grief and fear. Now that's a heck of a beginning to a horror movie.

After the credits, we fade to a view of Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer getting ready for his day. Maybe it's just me, but I think he's holding his razor against his throat a little too long while looking into the mirror (and the cinematographer makes amazing use of Daniel Radcliffe's face--he looks like he's going to cry at any second, and with his pale, drawn countenance he looks haunted long before he finds himself investigating the spirit world). He has a glimpse of a woman in white behind him in the mirror who isn't there in the long shot when he turns around but he seems more resigned than frightened. And when he's packing a suitcase to go wherever it is he's planning to go there's some important-looking papers on top of his clothing, all stamped OVERDUE in a font that can't be good news.

He has a brief moment with his son in which it's revealed that Kipps is a grieving widower (the woman he saw in the mirror is undoubtedly his late wife), and holding himself togther badly enough that his son's crayon drawings show him with a frown because that's how he looks all the time. He's got to go out of London for several days for work, but promises his child a train ride to the countryside and a weekend together in the fresh air. At his office, his superior Mr. Bentley gives him the kind of talk only a rich barrister a short distance from the Victorian era can give--the firm recognizes that Kipps is grieving, but they are not a charity so he's got to either get his mind right or be sacked. Nice to see job creators are the same the whole world round.

Kipps is being sent to the wonderfully named Eel Marsh House to clear up the last will and testament of a reclusive widow, Mrs. Alice Drablow. It's been years since anyone at the firm has been to her house and Bentley needs to be assured that the will they have on file in London is the most recent one before going through all the legally necessary motions to distribute the late Mrs. Drablow's property. Kipps has got three days to dig through the mountains of disorganized paperwork at Eel Marsh House and confirm that everything's in proper form.

On the train ride towards Basingstokeshiremeadowsmewsforest, Kipps sees a newspaper ad for a spiritualist that can contact the departed and has a flashback to a memory of his wife dying in childbirth (although, thanks to the prevailng social mores of the time his memory is of pacing back and forth in a waiting room while he hears the screaming and crying from the birthing bed). After an uneasy dream that further explores the same memory Arthur wakes up and sees a beefy guy wearing country tweeds and fondly holding a small dog in the seat facing him. The man knows he's from London and looking to sell Eel Marsh House and in the best traditions of signpost characters he says that there won't be a local buyer for the property. But it's still England, so instead of the snarling half-mad Crazy Ralph that one might get in America the man introduces himself as Arthur Daily and offers to give Kipps a ride to his hotel rather than make him walk all the way from the train station in the pouring rain, as well as a dinner invitation the following day.

The innkeeper tells Kipps that there's no record of his reservation and that they're full up anyway, but the man's wife declares that they can't turn the lawyer out in the storm. The hotelier raises the stakes by saying the attic is the only room available. His wife doesn't back down and shoes Kipps to his room (and it's safe to say that Arthur knows that something's up but not exactly what--at this point he's probably chalking it up to Mrs. Drablow being unpopular in town). A little bit of conversation between the woman and Kipps on the stairs lead to a caged myna bird imitating the phrase "sea mist", which probably comes up in conversation around the moors and the shore quite a bit.

And, as you probably guessed, the attic room is the one that the three little girls jumped out of at the very beginning of the film. Kipps has no idea and therefore settles down for the night as best he can. The next morning as he heads to Eel Marsh House a random villager sees him walking and sends his three children inside with a single word to them and not even a syllable of explanation to the lawyer. The village solicitor, a Mr. Jerome, is extremely brusque with Kipps and even says that he contacted the firm in London to tell them not to send anyone down. He hands Kipps an envelope that might hold up to thirty or forty pieces of paper and wishes him well on his trip back to London. When Kipps says he'll be inspecting the paperwork at the house Mr. Jerome and his wife have a brief, panicky conversation through telepathic eye contact and the solicitor says that won't be possible, denies the possibility of sending a telephone call, telegram or letter to Kipps' home office and then shoves him out the door and wishes him a good day. Kipps, of course, has one chance to save his job so he bribes the coachman six shillings to take him to Eel Marsh House instead of the train station.

The mansion turns out to be on a rocky piece of land that's an island during high tide; the coachman says he'll return for Kipps at five that evening, since that's the earliest that the winding, desolate road will be above the surface of the water. The house is a fantastic location, pale stone overrun by creeping ivy and overgrown gardens. The inside is dusty and dim sunlight barely penetrates the gloom to illuminate miles of cobwebs. There's a brief jump scare as the kitchen faucet vomits lumpy brown water into the sink. And something was inside the upper floor looking at Kipps as he arrived, which is not a good sign for the future at all.

Kipps gets to work, opening windows in the hunting trophy room and working his way through stacks of disorganized and irrelevant paperwork, with birthday cards lumped in together with the death certificate of a seven year old child named Nathaniel Drablow. Poor Nathaniel drowned in the marsh and his body was never found. Right after he sees the death certificate Kipps hears noises from upstairs and goes to investigate (NOTE:  do not ever do this). There's a jump scare with a Spring-Loaded Crow that flies out of an empty fireplace, and right after he gets startled by that Kipps opens a window and looks outside, noticing a woman dressed in funereal black (including a veil) standing in the estate's graveyard. The crow distracts him and when he turns back, the woman has vanished.

When he goes outside to look for the woman, Kipps hears a coach and terrified horses as well as a woman screaming in panic. It's too foggy for him to make anything out in his search and Kipps starts to imagine the carriage accident that claimed Nathaniel Drablow's life. He screams for the coachman who brought him to the manor, and the man turns out to be right there in the mist. Back at town, Kipps tries to report an accident at the local police station and gets the usual "nobody has been there today and for that matter people don't go to the creepy abandoned house at all over the last decade because they don't want to" speech from the desk sergeant. When he reports seeing a woman at the estate the cop excuses himself and leaves just in time for two boys the bring their sister into the station looking for help. Their sister drank lye a little while ago and Kipps winds up being the one who holds her in his arms as she dies. She's one of the kids that Arthur saw while going through the village earlier that day--out of the seven children that have shown up in the film so far, three jumped out a window and one drank caustic materials.

Back at the Gifford Arms, Kipps hears a woman sobbing upstairs and goes to offer what help he can. It turns out to be the myna bird, which has to have heard an awful lot of crying in order to imitate it so perfectly (this scene worked like a buried time bomb in my mind when I realized just what it meant for a mimicking bird to be able to perfectly duplicate that particular sound). The innkeeper's wife tells Kipps not to go back to the mansion but won't tell him why. He is bound by his love for his son to keep working the job even though every experience in the village has ranged from creepy to off-putting to horrifying.

That night he goes to the Daily residence for dinner; the man of the house is reflecting outside the family mausoleum when Kipps arrives. Sam Daily tells Arthur that he's comforted by the vault on his estate--there's a place there for his wife and one for him, so one day he'll be reunited with his late son. I realize that mortality rates were high before antibiotics and rural areas have their own hazards to life and limb, as do seasides, but it does certainly seem like being a child in Gifford is about as dangerous as being Charles Bronson's friend in the first act of any of his movies.

Before dinner, Sam Daily warns Kipps not to bring up the subject of the dead girl in the village, and not to talk about children in any context if he can avoid it. Elizabeth Daily, Sam's wife, extends an offer to Kipps to stay at their home since the inn has turned him out and brings "the twins" to dinner--who turn out to be a pair of small dogs. The inset shot of Sam taking a quick drink to steel his nerves is a quiet but welcome joke in this scene. The dinner conversation turns bitter as Elizabeth says that the Dailys are the richest family in their entire county but don't have any heirs. This in response to Arthur saying he has a son; apparently there's a lot of emotional baggage about children in the Daily household indeed.

In the middle of dinner, Elizabeth mentions that her late son Nicholas wants to draw a picture for Kipps, and goes into an automatic-writing trance, gouging the table with a knife while Sam tries futilely to prevent the seizure. Sam Daily winds up having to chloroform his wife to bring her out of that state; after dinner, Sam and Arthur talk about spiritualism and whether or not there's anything to that particular interest sweeping the British isles. Daily insists (possibly more to himself than to Kipps) that after death, the soul ascends to another plane--it doesn't stay on earth and doesn't try to make its existence known to the living. Which does raise the question of what that trance or seizure meant when Elizabeth Daily had her episode, and why the picture looked like a crude representation of a woman in a dress hanging from a noose.

The next morning, at Jerome's law office, the lawyer is nowhere to be found but noises downstairs lead Kipps to discover a girl behind a locked door who yells at him to go away when he sees her, accusing him of killing Victoria Hardy, the girl that drank lye the day before. On the drive to Eel Marsh House there's a knot of men blocking the road, and here's where Kipps (and the audience) get the first major piece of the puzzle. A tearful man tells Kipps that he saw the woman at the manor house, and now his girl is dead. Daily, as sympathetically as he can, says that superstitious nonsense won't help the grieving father at all and the innkeeper (who, let's remember, has three dead daughters as well) says that Daily's own son was killed by the same supernatural entity. And I never want Ciaran Hinds mad at me based on the look he gets on his face after hearing that.

Daily's sympathetic to the men, but hearing his son used as a weapon against him pisses him off enough to drive through the men blocking the road (they are smart enough to get out of the way, having seen the F-5 Hate Face that Daily threw at them). Kipps gets dropped off at the house for another day's labor and Daily says that he's actually doing everyone in the village a favor. Once the house is sold, everyone can move on to another chapter rather than being stuck in the past like they are at this point. It's probably also telling that the character who owns a motorcar is the one looking to the future while the village (which depends on horse-drawn carriages) are most concerned about whatever happened in the past.

Daily is a genuinely good person--he gives Arthur a sack lunch since he'll be stuck on the island once the tide comes in and even loans his dog Spider to the lawyer for company in the big creepy house. And warns Kipps not to go chasing after shadows while he's supposed to be working on the Sisyphean paperwork task. Which he does, although when he sees a hand slap against a windowpane set into a door he certainly wants to see what's going on. It turns out there's nobody there after all (although Kipps also sees an eye looking back at him when he looks into a zoetrope as it spins, so either there's something really there or he's letting the fantastically creepy cluttered rooms at Eel Marsh House get to him). He finds papers with angry declarations written on them in red ink, but before he can peruse them all that much the dog starts barking and leads him out of the house.

Kipps goes to the graveyard (and the camera reveals something watching him from the woods), but when he looks around he doesn't see anyone. One of the graves in the lichyard is for Jennet Humfrye, listed on her monument as Alice Drablow's sister. When he walks back to the house, Kipps sees a pale cadaverous face in one of the upper windows looking down at him before it recedes into darkness. He goes up to the room to look for whoever--or whatever--it was, but there's nobody there that he can see. There is someone that the audience gets to see in the reverse shot, though, supplying the most effective jump scare in the film.

Kipps finds a sheaf of old letters in a box in the room where he saw the figure and starts sorting through them instead of doing what he was sent to Eel Marsh House to do. Like many seekers after knowledge in horror movies, he finds it. It turns out that Nathaniel Drablow was Jennet Humfrye's son and that after Humfrye was declared mentally unfit to be a mother, the Drablow family adopted Nathaniel. From the venomous tone of Jennet's letters, there may have been something legitimately wrong with her, but regardless of whether or not she was insane originally she appears to have gone utterly mad by the time she wrote her final letter. The one blaming her sister and brother-in-law for Nathaniel's death, cursing them for leaving his body in the marsh mud, and vowing never to forget or forgive them for saving themselves from the coach wreck and leaving Nathaniel to die.

The next document that Kipps finds is Jennet Humfrye's death certificate; she hanged herself in the nursery in Eel Marsh House. And it's right after Arthur reads that certificate that a door opens by itself behind him. He dozes off in his chair--demonstrating a greater commitment to sleep than I think I would be able to demonstrate in a creepy drafty haunted house, and the vengeful spirit of Jennet Humfrye manifests behind him. The ghost approaches Kipps as he sleeps but the dog apparently dispels it via barking. That just leads the ghost to up her game; rhythmic creaking and thudding noises draw Kipps over to a locked door that opens itself when he leaves to look for a hatchet to break it down. The room in question is the nursery, and contains a rocking chair moving on its own (although the audience gets to see its occupant during the reverse shot). Radcliffe looks like he was born to star in a Hammer film in this scene, moving through the house with a hatchet and a candle in search of the unknown, face alive with fear in the flickering yellow light.

Kipps sees a tear in the nursery's wallpaper and removes the top layer, to show identical wallpaper underneath it with YOU COULD HAVE SAVED HIM written in blood. Just at that moment a windup toy monkey (playing maracas rather than cymbals) does its thing, which is the ghost-story equivalent of a canary in a coal mine. The scene is capped off when Kipps sees the ghost of Nathaniel Humfrye rise out of the marsh during a downpour and walk slowly towards the house. One ghostly screaming face later, there's a knock at the front door and the knob rattles and turns. Of course there's nobody to be found when Arthur opens the door, but outside in the rain he sees a crowd of ghostly children in the forest, and recognizes Victoria Hardy among their number. Back in the house, a trail of muddy footprints lead upstairs towards the sound of a merrily chiming music box.

The footprints go into the nursery, so Kipps goes into the nursery. In what cannot be anything but a positive sign, all the windup toys in the room are going through their mechanical paces. Something moves through Kipps' peripheral vision and WAAAHHGGH IT'S THE WOMAN IN BLACK HANGING HERSELF AND LOOKING RIGHT AT HIM! He drops the candle, which goes out; I probably would have had a coronary on the spot. And that's not the worst thing that Arthur sees in the room. Apparitions commence and Kipps flees for the door, only to find that Sam Daily has arrived to drive him back to the mainland. I appreciate that the only part of Kipps' description of his night that appears in the movie is "You don't believe me, do you?"; we just saw it. We know he's going to tell Daily what he saw. It keeps the momentum going.

They arrive in the village just in time to see a knot of people outside a Mr. Jerome's home and office on fire, and Mrs. Jerome screaming and sobbing over what's happening to her daughter Lucy (that they were trying to keep sheltered in the locked basement room). Kipps charges into the conflagration and breaks down the door to rescue Lucy, who looks to the corner and a familiar black-clad apparition looks back to her. The girl calmly shatters an oil lamp at her feet and stands silently as she immolates herself. Two burning roofbeams fall into the frame and Kipps is forced to retreat if he wants to live.

The next day, Kipps talks to Elizabeth Daily and she sees from looking into his eyes that he's encountered the vengeful ghost. Mrs. Daily tells Arthur not to blame himself for disregarding the advice of everyone in the village and going to the house; he doesn't understand why she's telling him that. Then she drops the bombshell on him:  Every time someone sees the ghost--even for a fraction of a second--a child in the village dies. And given that there was a crowd of young spirits in the forest around Eel Marsh House, it appears that the vengeful spirit is even preventing the children from moving on to Heaven and being reunited with their families.

Elizabeth goes into a trance state and explains (with a child's voice overlaid over her own) that the spirit compels children to kill themselves in her revenge against the world, and that she has seen Arthur Kipps and is coming to exact vengeance on him, then scrapes an imitation of Kipps' son's crayon drawing of the train ride to Gifford and the pair of them standing together. The trance breaks and Kipps races to send a telegram to his nanny and son telling them not to come down to the countryside. The grocery store / telegraph office is closed, so Kipps hatches a desperate plan in lieu of passively waiting for his son to be murdered by a vengeful spirit.

He (and Sam, and Sam's car) are pressed into service by the marshes. He remembers the spot where he saw Nathaniel's body rise up from the muck and ties a rope around his waist. He'll submerge into the bog, find the carriage that was lost years ago, tie the rope to it and Sam will haul it out of the slime, hopefully before Kipps dies. They'll be able to find Nathaniel's body, since the peat bog will have preserved it. And wonder of wonders, this plan actually works (in a scene played out in the dark of night; they pair has to work when the tides are out and are in an understandable hurry). Sam Daily, the consummate rationalist, sees a few apparitions and becomes an instant believer while stuck in a room with a door that won't unlock. This leaves Arthur alone with the ghost before they can break open the slab covering Jennet Humfrye's grave and inter Nathaniel's body with her.

But--as Kipps should know better than anyone, having read her letters--Jennet Humfrye said she'd never forgive her sister for letting Nathaniel drown. And never is a very, very long time. If death itself couldn't stop her rage, simply being reunited with her son won't be enough either.

And the train bearing Arthur's son is due to arrive. I know I usually go up to the end credits with these reviews, but if you want to know exactly how this ends, I'm not telling you. It's Hammer's first ghost story in the half-century they've been making horror films and it was chilling enough that I want other people to experience it themselves.

I think this movie plays out better at home than it did in the theater (though I truly enjoyed the experience of hearing teenagers that just thought they were seeing the movie with Harry Potter in it getting terrified repeatedly). The soundtrack in the theater was deafening and really oversold the LOUD NOISES OUT OF NOWHERE! jump scares when a little less would have worked so much more. But the real star of the film is the fabulously dim, cobwebbed, creepy and dank Eel Marsh House. Cluttered with objects like a Satanic take on the House on the Rock, there's a lot of great fun suspense as the camera glides around like a sedate British cover version of Sam Raimi's hyperkinetic cinematography.

Daniel Radcliffe acquits himself very well, and his youthful appearance serves the story--it's easy to believe that Arthur Kipps would be out of his depth and outmatched by the spirit haunting the manor. It's great to see so many grownups in the movie as well, all of them displaying the telltale signs of British Character Actor Face. The horror in the story isn't about something bad happening to Kipps; other than when he puts his own life at risk he's never really in danger from Jennet's wrathful spirit. Instead, it's a horror movie about trying to protect someone that you love. The survivors left behind by the children's deaths will be haunted for decades if not generations, and that's certainly more affecting than the thought of being torn apart by a serial killer's rigged trap (not that being dropped into an acid tank sounds like a fun evening, mind you).

Lastly, it overjoys me as a horror nerd that Radcliffe's first choice for a film after the Harry Potter series was a sedate period piece Hammer flick. He could have done literally anything and he wanted to make a film for The House That Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee Built. And the film does indeed have its subtler moments to go with the Spring-Loaded Crows and shrieking ghosts.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Wolfen

Yes, I Know:  We're Going to Eat You


  1. Absolute agreement. This was the first of the resurrection-era Hammers I saw, and I fell into a mild coma induced by glee and admiration when it was over. It hadn't occurred to me at the time it was so contrary to the trends of the day; I was too busy being relieved that it wasn't in line with them.

  2. Yes, this movie WASVERYLOUD. Wonderfully atmospheric though.

  3. I was overjoyed at this one in the theater. And hearing the knots of teenage girls who went to see the new Daniel Radcliffe movie get TERRIFIED OVER AND OVER by the jump scares and ghost sightings made me even happier.