Film in review: “The Woman in Black”

It relies heavily on screen time with a young star, Daniel Radcliffe, star of the “Harry Potter” series. There’s no question that he’s comfortable on camera. Not quite boyish anymore, but somehow not yet mannish, either, he plays a young man working for a solicitor’s firm in London. He has apparently not shown much initiative in his work, and so he has one last chance to redeem himself, and that’s by sorting through the voluminous papers of a recently deceased person on a remote, nearly inaccessible bog.

So we have lots of scenes of heavy fog, tides rolling over the only dirt road, thick woods surrounding the old, dilapidated mansion, and occasionally some very parochial townsfolk who not only mistrust outsiders but are downright hostile to them.

It’s not long before Arthur (Radcliffe) begins hearing things go bump in the night. The screenplay is such that at first we catch glimpses of shadowy figures emerging from the moor, then ghosts, then faces that appear in the dark outside of windows. Every time, they also surprise us with some loud sound and we jump and titter and enjoy experiencing our skin crawl, but sooner or later they have to dispense with the cheap cinematic tricks and actually demonstrate a plot.

Arthur is grieving for his wife, who died in childbirth. He has left his little boy in the care of a nanny while he tries to sort out the mess presented to him. He’s looking forward to his son arriving by train for the weekend, but he continues to be haunted by both his painful memories and his present afflictions. He figures the reason he’s seeing all these dead people is that he continues to “see” his lovely bride, in his dreams and occasionally in a mirror or window reflection. He seems to have an openness to the unexplained and the otherworldly, which in a way reprises Harry Potter. Except that here he’s not the star, nor does he possess a magic wand. And he sure could have used Ron and Hermione’s help. The only one he has to watch his back is a dog who barks at the ghosts.

It seems some local unwed lady first had her child taken away from her by an overly protective sister and her husband. Then she was denied access, and then the boy drowned in a horrible accident, though his body was never recovered from the muck. The mother hanged herself, but her spirit still seeks revenge. And so the hapless villagers continue to experience the mysterious deaths of their own children, whose apparitions now appear to Arthur, pleading for some kind of justice.

Eventually, Arthur figures out that he has to placate the evil witch-ghost, the “woman in black.” He manages to dig up the little boy’s body and place it in the woman’s grave, and assumes that will do the trick. Wrong. Evil is, apparently, more persistent than that, and it refuses to be placated. Of course, Harry Potter would have known that.

What’s refreshing about this little spine-tingler is that it manages to stay away from the recent obsession with slashing and beheading and blood-spurting theatrics, and also to eschew the CGI monsters, so it feels both real and reserved. It just might be the ghost story for those who don’t normally do horror movies.

Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.

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