The Woman in Black: Hammer Horror for (nearly) all the Family

This is a special post. It has been written on request. A family friend and English teacher has asked if I might have seen the Woman in Black, and if I would write a bit about the film and its parallels to Susan Hill’s rather excellent source text. So, to those in a certain English class who’ve been instructed to read my blog for homework, listen up.

I have indeed seen the Woman in Black. It was the late-night DVD of choice one evening whilst I was back with the family over the University summer vacation. We liked bits of it, it certainly had its creepy moments (I’ve always been a sucker for ghostly faces appearing in windows), and Daniel Radcliffe was, well, he was Daniel Radcliffe, but he wasn’t Harry Potter, which is a pretty good compliment for an actor who’s pop-culture reputation hinges on little other than a pubescent magician.

Radcliffe plays Arthur, the maudlin widower and junior lawyer sent to deepest, darkest, boggiest Norfolk to execute the affairs of an extinct estate, and instead triggers the latest killing spree of a ghostly, vengeful child-killer.

I read the book several years ago now, but I remember it pretty well because I was in hospital at the time and would read it late into the night. It is the archetypal Horror story- in some way or another it has influenced pretty much every film that lays claim to the “Horror” genre since. It takes the Gothic Horror concept [that’s an artistic movement that happened roughly between 1760 and 1880, not the moody teenagers], which has evolved into a vast range of styles you’ll have certainly come across, and reinstates it in its original form. Its interesting, as a result, because of its stylistic simplicity- the pulp fiction, fin-de-siecle and Noir styles, all integral to both modern literature and cinema, are all evolutions of the Gothic horror story.

Give it a go, its really good

So does that make Hill’s novel a dinosaur? Not according to audience reaction, buying and loving the book for nearly thirty years, producing the second-longest running play on the West End (and the scariest, by all measures) and being enough of a cultural phenomenon to resurrect another legend of the industry: The Hammer Horror Studio.

So what have they set out to achieve with this film? It isn’t devoid of narrative subtext, but there isn’t an awful lot of it [ENGLISH CLASS: PICK UP YOUR PENS]. The Horror industry is somewhat unique amongst genres that it is driven by effects, rather than plot. It isn’t so much about telling you a story as MAKING YOU SCREAM or something like that. Shock value takes precedence over a sweeping narrative, because horror artists know that you aren’t paying money to appraise a philosophically-profound-multiple-narrative-thematically-diverse-overly-complicated monster that you could use to confuse Stephen Fry.

Kids, this is a joke. No one can confuse Stephen Fry.

As a result, even though there is a plot, and a story, and even a little bit of subtext in Radcliffe’s longing for his late wife, the overall effect is to watch him run around misty, misty Norfolk looking terrified. The basic formula of the story is this: A Ghostly women is set on revenge for crimes against her long-dead family, and her appearance is the cue for a child to die. Daniel Radcliffe is the meddlesome out-of-towner, whose rummaging through the effects of a marshy estate triggers a veritable genocide. But of course, Radcliffe soon realises the implications this has on him and his family, which leads to a quest to quell the woman’s vengeful path…

The story works because of its stylistic faithfulness and simplicity. Modern horror in all its found-footage, psychological, torture-porn, cabin-in-the-woods forms, sets ever higher hurdles of technology and credulity to achieve its aim- to isolate you and the character from the safety of reality and suspend your faith in a positive outcome.

“You’re a… woman, Harry.”

The Woman in Black succeeds there, because it appeals to Victorian forms of isolation that are believable, even if they are out of date; as a result, we invest emotionally in them. Radcliffe is utterly isolated on his abandoned marshy estate, a practical city man who has to contend with the superstitions and fears of the locals; but most importantly, he is isolated from reality by the death of his wife and emotional estrangement from his son.

This is the driving force of the horror element. It isn’t in the least bit subtle, what with the haunted house and mists and the excessively turquoise colour grading. Its an interesting visual hallmark of the film, that it is so cold and blue that the blueness almost becomes unnoticeable. The unnatural colour of the mist is only so obvious because it is so all-consuming. It also brings out the shades of black, which is much undervalued. The tension of the film is set by movements in the dark, indistinguishable figures, outlines and ghostly faces. All this, the film does well, and the audience response is well measured.

But no film can go the distance just on shock-and-awe factor- there has to be a process of narrative which I’m going to call Discovery, Development, Deliverance:

  • The character must discover a piece of information that will alter his perception of the story,
  • This will develop his character and inform his choices,
  • And at the climax of the story he must deliver on this personal transformation by acting to change the story’s projected outcome.The problem is, films and books deliver these in very different ways.

In Susan Hill’s novel, the discoveries that inform Arthur’s personal development- that is, the revelation of the Woman’s family is directly tied in with the bumps, bangs, screams and deaths that drive the horror-content of the novel. And his deliverance is two-fold; he keeps coming back, in a horrific way attracted towards the house, its ghostly inhabitant the grief-stricken story to which he relates. And this in itself is development and deliverance enough that, when he has been taken to the edge of his sanity, and he escapes the marshland, yearning for renewed contact with his son, that is all the deliverance we need- a return to the real world, a shrugging-off of the horrific fantasy that has twisted him since long before we picked up his story.

See what I mean about the colour grading?

The film cannot match that narrative complexity. It is much more linear. And as a result, it cannot make the bumps, bangs, screams and deaths authentically tally with the discoveries, developments and ultimately, the deliverance of Radcliffe’s Arthur. The film takes place in two uneven halves- the first, where tension and fear are brought to an effective climax, then deflated as in the last twenty minutes, the entire plot of discovering how the Woman lost her son, how Radcliffe has to try and save her soul and his son’s at the same time, and that ultimate reunion, is rushed, rehashed and ultimately altered, because they couldn’t make it work emotionally.

The end is very different from the book, and Arthur’s deliverance is about as opposed to the novel’s as it could be. It isn’t a bad ending. It’s inventive enough that it delivers on some level. But t isn’t as successful as the book. Why? Because ultimately it falls into the same trap as all the other modern horror features: It can’t bear to leave a loose end, even when that is integral to the story. And as a result, as technically good and convincing as the Woman in Black may be, it didn’t leave us spooked. The Book? That did.

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