♫ STOP - HAMMER TIME! ♫
Hammer studios is a name well-known to horror fans. The legendary UK studio was the go-to name in gothic horror from the 1950s to the 70s, making the careers of people like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, director Terence Fisher, and countless others. Their iconic takes on Dracula, The Mummy, and others, led to international distribution, immense financial (if not always critical) success, and most importantly, generations of young horror fans raised on their films. Sinclair McKay’s delightful book A Thing of Unspeakable Horror: The History of Hammer Films details the rise of the studio, built on the backs of these cheapie horrors, and eventually falling on the inability to alter said product. After shuttering its doors in the 80s, the studio was sold again in 2007, when it once more began producing films - or, in the words of its new owners, trying to “build its brand”, sigh - leading to three results, thus far: Let Me In, The Resident, and today’s film, The Woman In Black.
Funny thing about brands: once you’re known for something, it’s pretty tough to go outside that box. (Just ask Microsoft how the Zune is doing.) This isn’t necessarily fair, but it seems to be historically true. In the case of the “new” Hammer, there’s only three points of reference. Let Me In is a superb film, the definition of a smart remake: it adapts from and reworks its predecessor without losing the heart of the story. It speaks to a different cultural audience, and does so brilliantly; some would argue it’s a superior film to the original. But one thing it definitely does NOT feel like is a Hammer Studios film. It’s contemporary, ambiguous, potent…more like a David Cronenberg film than the house that Christopher Lee’s leering Dracula built. The Resident, by comparison, is simply not a particularly good movie - but it also feels nothing like a Hammer film. If anything, it evokes the lame early-90s boom of trashy “enemy-next-door” thrillers like Sleeping With the Enemy and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. I admire the efforts a new studio to think outside its safety zone, and to be honest, I couldn’t care less what studio makes a film - if it’s good, it’s good, and if it’s bad, it’s bad. The politics of behind-the-scenes dealmaking is lost on most viewers, and even when a studio makes its name on the acquisition of good films - in short, trying to build trust with the audience, so that they are inclined to see the next release with the company name in front of the title - there’s a small percentage, at best, of the viewing audience that gives a crap. (Many of us are excited to see what Drafthouse Films acquires next, but let’s be honest: that’s a 1-in-1,000 proposition.)
Which brings us to The Woman In Black. As a horror fan, there was something nostalgia-inducing about seeing the Hammer logo appear. But the film that followed was all that mattered, and in this case, I’m pleased to say, the film capitalized, in the smartest way possible, on what it means to be a “Hammer” film. Just as Marvel studios has developed a certain in-house brand for their films, regardless of content, so too does it behoove Hammer to look to the past as they try to build their future. (Their famous-image-montage of a logo even apes Marvel’s comic-book moniker.) And in this case, it seems the perfect fusion of style and content. The movie is an old-school throwback in every sense, but delivers on quality enough that it feels fresh and enjoyable.
The film tells the tale of Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young lawyer who lost his wife fours years ago while she was delivering their first child, a young boy, and still finds himself occasionally catching glimpses of her in the mirror, as his mind plays the odd trick on him in his grief. His sadness has caused his son to think of him as perpetually unhappy, and his company is sending him to assess the estate of a recently-passed woman, whose voluminous paperwork and contested estate provide Arthur with a last chance to prove himself. He travels to the remote town where her house, crumbling and surrounded on all sides by a dangerous marshlands, contains her paperwork. The townsfolk, as is the case in such stories, are immediately threatening and hostile, refusing him a stay in the hotel, trying to force him back on a train to London before he’s even had a chance to essay the estate, and generally behaving like people hiding a terrible secret.
However, Arthur not only makes it out to the estate, he makes a friend, Sam (Ciaran Hinds), who refuses to believe the town’s superstitious nonsense, even when his wife seems to believe it as well. Soon, Arthur is exploring the old home, and begins catching glimpses of a mysterious woman. (Is she dressed…IN BLACK?!?! I’ll save that surprise for the movie!) Every time he sees her, a young child in the nearby town mysteriously dies, and after awhile, Arthur suspects something nefarious in afoot. Sam tries to convince him that there’s no such thing as magic, that everything has a reason, but very soon, Arthur isn’t so sure. (Unnecessary, I assume, to remind everyone “spoilers from here on out.” Stop, and watch the movie, and come back to discuss at a later date.) Eventually, we get a race against time as Arthur realizes that The Woman In Black was a local woman whose child was taken from her, and after she killed herself, began exacting vengeance on the local town, by killing a child each time her visage was spotted haunting the marshlands. Enterprising young Arthur decides to finally find the body of her missing, long-dead child, hoping that by being reunited with her beloved son, she will cease her reign of death on the local village. I know it’s shocking, so hang on, but it turns out that having the corpse of her six-year-old placed in her coffin alongside her doesn’t actually slake her eternal thirst for punishment on the living. Who would’ve thought a murderous ghost could be so unreasonable?
Everything about this movie is charmingly retro, in all the right ways. It’s a haunted house story, first and foremost, and so the majority of the film is dedicated to Radcliffe silently wandering the halls of an old mansion, as things go “bump” in the night. There’s the requisite gravestones in the front yard; the eerie wind-up toys in the child’s bedroom; the creaks and bumps that suggest an otherworldly presence; there’s even the required “Ripping-off-the-wallpaper” scene, as Radcliffe tears at a space on the wall to reveal a spoooooky message from beyond the grave. Ninety percent of The Woman In Black feels like it could’ve been made fifty years ago, and unlike many a tired throwback to an earlier era of filmmaking (see: the current fetish for profoundly bad “grindhouse”-style movies), this one manages to nail a tone that feels timeless, not derivative. Period pieces, at their best, often feel like lost artifacts from another time, or artworks out of context, adrift from when they were made, and given to anachronistic interpretations as a result.
Here, we have two exhaustively mined tropes, but reclaimed in surefooted manner. The first is a classic Hammer theme: the debate between superstition and reason. This is arguably the oldest of all horror tropes, something that Mary Shelley unpacked over a hundred years ago, but one that horror, as a genre, has effectively mined for a long time. Hammer excelled at this, as many of its better films explicitly pulled at the thread of what it means to accept the unexplainable as a fact of life. Much like horror itself, the effectiveness of this theme has less to do with the content, and everything to do with how it’s presented. There’s a reason that a half-dozen Amityville sequels and remakes feel like tired retreads, and the deeply unoriginal The Conjuring can make it all feel new and exciting again. As Ebert famously said, it doesn’t matter what a movie is about, but HOW it’s about what it’s about.
The second trope is a familiar one to anyone who’s seen a horror film in the past twenty years: the endless fear of unexplainable threats to children. There are so, so many ways for kids to die by accident, and horror has mined this trope for all its worth. In fact, upon reflection, it may be the Ur-theme of most horror. Freddy Krueger; Sinister; Pet Semetary; Darkness Falls; Village of the Damned; The Exorcist; on a certain level, these and many other films are about exactly the same thing: why do terrible things happen to innocent children? Horror is an attempt to come to grips with things that have no good answer; the toughest of all these topics is death, and the heaviest of all the questions about death is how to prevent it happening to the young, those who go before their time. By ascribing supernatural causes to the death of children, we give it a meaning and an explanation, a way to justify the unjustifiable. Fear of children’s safety will always be an inexhaustible source of horror. In this case, we have a variant on The Ring: a wronged spirit seeks vengeance for the harm visited upon them, and the effort to placate them only unleashes an even more potent spectre.
Even better, The Woman In Black doesn’t shy away from fun. There’s a scene with Ciaran Hinds and his wife (played by the reliably boffo Janet McTeer), where we learn that she has coped with the death of her son by replacing him with two small dogs, who eat at the table with her, and get their own napkins tied around their necks. It goes from zero to crazy in no time flat. It is the best.
Also, the fact that the movie relies on jump scares for every single one of its spooks is compensated for by having these sudden scares provided by organic sounds in the film, rather than lazy “screeees" on the soundtrack. An early jump is caused by the sound of dirty water spurting out the pipes; a later one is a bird exploding from under a bed; and so on. At no point were violins instructed to shriek on the score, purely for a start, having no relation to what the film has earned. It’s the very definition of worthy jump scares, not cheap ones. Radcliffe reacts to all of this with actorly aplomb, as well. It’s essentially a one-man show fo most of the running time, and Radcliffe shows up ready to play. He does "haunted" admirably well for a guy in his early twenties, and sells some of the hammier moments with a commitment that makes you understand why he’s the new Broadway flavor du jour; it takes a certain ability to oversell with gusto things like How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.
The ending is appropriately creepy - I had assumed there would be a cop-out ending, based both on Radcliffe’s star power and the PG-13 nature of the enterprise. Instead, we get a dark and nihilistic ending that allows us to not feel too bad (both father and son are both killed, and reunited with the wife/mother in the afterlife), while still delivering the morbid goods. (Moral of our story: everybody dies!) A good ghost story will never go out of style; even after all these years, the fables that get shared around campfires, the tales passed down from babysitters to wide-eyed children remain the same. Fundamental fears of human nature don’t change, even if the means we utilize to tell them do. (From talismans to phone calls to VHS tapes, the change of the medium allows the message to stay the same.) A period piece can work for horror, as long as the manner in which it’s conveyed doesn’t feel tired. In the case of The Woman In Black, it feels terribly familiar, in all the right ways.