Movie Review: To Hell And Black

Daniel Radcliffe gets the Potter scared out of him by Hammer Studios and The Woman In Black. And you will, too.


Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young widower still shaken up over the death of his wife four years earlier while giving birth to their son Joseph. In order to support his struggling family and save his job at a law firm, he accepts the task of going to the remote town of Crythin Grifford to attend to the legal affairs of the recently diseased Alice Drablow. Upon arriving, he finds that the locals want nothing to do with him and can’t wait to get him back on the train to London. Once Arthur visits Drablow’s manor, Eel Marsh, he begins seeing images of a mysterious woman in black, whose appearance is said to foretell the death of a child. Soon, Arthur realizes that there is more to Eel Marsh and the town than it appears…and that he and his son may be in danger.

Reach out, I’ll be there…when you least expect it.

Susan Hill‘s novel The Woman In Black has been previously adapted, both as a long-running play and successful UK TV movie. For its first project in years, the venerable Hammer Film Studios has created a new adaptation that’s both old-fashioned and refreshing in a time of 3D slasher films, cheap found-footage jump cuts and gratuitous torture porn. Directed by James Watkins and scripted by the always-reliable Jane Goldman, the film is a foreboding, claustrophobic piece of gothic cosmic horror that may very well be the most frightening horror film in years.

The film largely succeeds based on its simplicity. There is next to nothing in the way of obvious CGI, and most of the supernatural goings-on are done with practical effects: a sudden, liquid movement in an out-of-focus background, a shadow passing over a mirror. While they are often unfortunately and needlessly punctuated with the omnipresent orchestral stab that horror films are contractually bound to include, the effects are seamlessly integrated into the frame. It encourages the viewer to study the backgrounds carefully, drawing the audience in along with Arthur into a slowly-constricting grip of heart-stopping terror.

Quiet, secluded, a definite fixer-upper. Some trouble with animated corpses.

The story is told almost entirely from Arthur’s perspective, with very few scenes outside his immediate gaze. The film largely avoids making us question Arthur’s sanity, as it becomes clear very quickly that he actually is surrounded by vengeful ghosts and unexplained events. Daniel Radcliffe is given both the task of making us believe Arthur’s situation and making the audience forget about the Harry Potter films. He succeeds on both, signaling that he has a promising career outside of Hogwarts. Radcliffe wisely never overplays Arthur’s reactions. As the film goes on, and the hauntings become more severe, he serves as both an audience surrogate and a companion in the investigation behind the Eel Marsh events. It’s easy to be drawn into his circumstances, but difficult to then find yourself separated from them.

Where’s a “Salvio Hexia” spell when you need one?

The middle act of the film, where Arthur explores Eel Marsh on his own, is almost entirely non-verbal aside from a “Who’s there?” Radcliffe effectively conveys Arthur’s trepidation, curiosity and dread using everything from subtle facial cues to an uncertain gait. It’s this section that makes the film as frightening as it is. Without another human to bounce words off of, and without any way to remove himself from the grounds, Arthur has no choice but to slowly come to realize the full nature of the darkness that surrounds him. To say he’s unprepared is being generous, but he’s no less ill-equipped than the audience following him. Each new revelation adds deeper mystery to the situation, and the film refuses to give us easy answers or explanations.

Pictured: the begining of the end of your sanity.

In fact, the film’s main theme revolves around the human need to rationalize the unknown, even when such rationalization is entirely outside of human logic. While the film may immediately remind people of a Dickensian ghost story, it quickly becomes clear that the film owes much more to the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Arthur is a perfect Lovecraft protagonist, and the Woman In Black is a perfect avatar of the unknowable other. The Woman In Black is said to kill only when she is seen; only when humanity tries to understand the unknowable motives of the cosmic forces outside their control. Trying to find a solution to the hauntings doesn’t help to stop the terror. The Woman In Black isn’t a simple mystery. She’s completely outside logical thought, a harbinger of doom and madness that can’t be appeased by a simple scavenger hunt. There are no scenes of Arthur visiting an old librarian to find out the Woman’s history. He’s left without the footing guaranteed by reason, as is the audience.

If the film has any flaws, it’s that it’s too short and that Marco Beltrami fills his otherwise excellent, shadowy score with too many sonic jump cuts. But those shouldn’t detract from what is an amazingly effective and frightening film that succeeds equally on both a visceral and psychological level. Daniel Radcliffe proves that he’s a fantastic actor on his own, softly handsome and easily sympathetic. Cultivating a stark, yet rich atmosphere of choking dread and inescapable horror, The Woman In Black is a strong reminder of what a true horror film should be. 

Rating: 8 out of 10 / B+

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and slept with the lights on last night.  <a href="; title="imageimage

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