Post-Potter Radcliffe takes on poltergeist
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Feb. 3, 2012
According to spiritualists, the veil separating the world of the living from the world of the dead is tissue-thin at times. When it comes to cinematic ghost stories, however, there's a wide gulf between those who love the genre and those who just like to laugh at it.
That divide was in stark evidence at a recent screening of "The Woman in Black," a poltergeist-themed drama in which Daniel Radcliffe - making his post-"Harry Potter" debut - plays a London lawyer sent to the middle of nowhere to settle the estate of a deceased woman whose house is filled with ghosts, cobwebs, creepy wind-up toys and, not surprisingly, dark secrets. On the one hand, the movie provoked squeals of genuine terror from what what seemed to be the student body of an all-girls middle school. On the other hand, the rows of professional critics kept erupting in guffaws and the kind of smart-alecky back talk you'd expect at a screening of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
"Who's there?," Radcliffe's character, Arthur Kipps, demanded at one point as he stared, wide-eyed, at a mysteriously jiggling doorknob one dark and stormy night.
"Land shark," joked the comedian two seats down from me in a stage whisper loud enough for the whole auditorium to hear. (The crack drew an appreciative chuckle from those old enough to get the paleolithic "SNL" reference. Critics, it seems, ain't afraid of no ghosts.)
As for me, I had one foot in both camps. Every time the middle-school girls shrieked - which was often - I did, too. "The Woman in Black," based on Susan Hill's 1983 novel (which was also the inspiration for a 1989 made-for-British-TV film), delivers a better-than-serviceable, if less than "Sixth Sense"-worthy scare. Director James Watkins knows how to make a body jump out of its skin, even if he does use the face-reflected-in-the-mirror/window trick once too often.
At the same time, the film is kind of, well, silly.
Set a hundred years or so ago in the sort of small, remote and bleakly picturesque English village where folks don't take kindly to strangers, "The Woman in Black" features a supporting cast of mostly unknown actors tasked mainly with glaring at Arthur and urging him to take the next train back to London. He doesn't, of course. Meanwhile, he finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into a mystery involving madness and the ghosts of dead children. That's a winning (if less than original) formula, as any fan of Japanese horror can tell you. It also helps that Arthur is a widower himself. He already imagines that he can see his late wife. What's a few more apparitions here and there?
Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer help class up the joint as a couple who take Arthur under their wing when the town innkeeper refuses to rent him a room during his investigations. McTeer is particularly fun as a mother who seems to be able to channel the spirit of her dead son. It's a role that calls for no small scenery-chewing. Just about the right amount, I'd say, for a story in which the ectoplasmic characters share almost as much screen time as the flesh-and-blood ones.
Radcliffe, for his part, carries off the role of Arthur with reasonable aplomb. If the 22-year-old actor seems a little young to be playing a solicitor and single father whose wife died in childbirth four years earlier, his performance is sturdy and self-sufficient enough, at least, to banish thoughts of Hermione and Hogwarts. He's all grown-up.
The same can't be said of those in the audience who giggled and wisecracked their way through the movie. Unless, of course, their laughter was merely a way to relieve the unbearable suspense. Yeah, that's it. I, along with the rest of the 13-year-olds in the audience, am going with that theory.
Contains some disturbing thematic material, some blood and frightening imagery.