Director James Watkins, whose debut was the viscerally compelling but morally distasteful direct-to-video chiller Eden Lake starring Michael Fassbender, embraces all manner of moody Victorian kitsch with this big-budget adaptation of
the Eurythmics' "Here Comes the Rain Again" music video Susan Hill's horror mystery of the same name, made once before for British TV back in 1989. Daniel Radcliffe stars as Arthur Kripps, a lawyer whose namesake and familial distress (his wife died in childbirth and his cherubic son perpetually sketches him wearing a sad face) feels Dickensian, but after the single father travels to a village in order to sort out the very messy affairs of a recently deceased biddy who lived in its outskirts, he finds himself walking through Emily Brontë's foggiest nightmare.
A triumph of location scouting, The Woman in Black has a chilly calmness to it that's at least three shades more vivid than Radcliffe's sickly skin tone. Whether real or studio-created (it's admittedly hard to tell given the distance the camera keeps from it), the marshland leading to the remote manse where the titular ghoulie resides evokes the vascular. Only a bribed coachman will take Arthur there, on a winding road that will be subsumed by muddy tides come nighttime, and Watkins conveys the uneasiness of the total isolation this place portends, and what lurks beneath its marshes, with fetching, expensive-looking overheads.
But the film's triumph ends there. The story, of superstitious goings-on targeting small children and Arthur being shunned by villagers who don't take kindly to strangers, is old hat; the correlation between Arthur's distress and that of the woman who disturbs the film's characters is thinly drawn, a matter of convenience made bearable only by Radcliffe's convincingly haunted demeanor. For every subdued touch, such as a dead woman's becalmed voiceover, the film trips over a stock concession to genre cliché, perhaps none clumsier than Radcliffe's predictable, noisily staged attempt to appease his ghostly tormentor.
Watkins, perhaps a student of Polanski, can frame a fierce image along a diagonal line, but he has few tricks up his sleeve, often recycling similar shots from scene to scene, as well as spring-loaded scares that would get Roger Ebert's blood boiling. In the end, The Woman in Black displays a higher regard for the material makeup of gruesome-looking Victorian dolls than it does for the psychological turmoil of its characters, making one wish that some of the money it budgeted for cranes and fog machines had been offered to a script doctor.