U.K.'s venerable horror label relies on old-school scares

LONDON — With a worldwide gross of $111 million and counting, “The Woman in Black” is reaping the rewards for delivering seriously scary old-school horror within the boundaries of a PG-13 rating.

The $15 million pic, which stars Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Potter feature, also heralds the revival of the U.K.’s iconic Hammer label, under the ownership of Exclusive Media Group, as a brand to be reckoned with in the horror genre.

“We wanted to make a film that’s full of dread, but with no body count and no torture porn,” says Hammer topper Simon Oakes. “One of the avowed intentions of Hammer is to make frightening films that can scare both a 14-year-old and a 40-year-old. ‘The Woman in Black’ is the poster child for what we want Hammer to be, because it plays on our Britishness and on our literary tradition.”

Directed by James Watkins and adapted by Jane Goldman from Susan Hill’s novel, “The Woman in Black” was co-financed by Exclusive, Alliance, Cross Creek and the now defunct U.K. Film Council. Alliance took the U.K., Spain and Canada, while Cross Creek invested in first position against U.S. rights, which were then pre-sold to CBS Films from a promo.

The canny casting of Radcliffe, allied to the teen-friendly rating, guaranteed a huge awareness for the movie among kids who grew up alongside the boy wizard, but for whom Hammer was previously an unknown name.

It also helped to draw the mainstream adult audience that would normally give horror a wide berth, particularly since the descent of the genre into ever more extreme violence over the past decade.

Exec producer Xavier Marchand, Alliance’s president of international distribution and managing director of its Brit arm, Momentum Pictures, was a key figure in positioning “The Woman in Black” as what he calls “the first horror film that the Potter crowd would see.”

Some recent American horror films, including “Cloverfield” and “The Last Exorcism,” managed to nab a commercially advantageous PG-13 rating in the U.S., but were still classified as 15 in the U.K., which means that no one under that age would be allowed in the theater.

Marchand was determined that “Woman in Black” would qualify for the less restrictive 12A rating, which allows younger moviegoers to attend with an adult.

“Xavier was the person who realized the importance of having a film for that younger audience,” says Nigel Sinclair, co-chairman and CEO of Exclusive. “James Watkins and he spent some time carefully and artistically shaping the material to fit.”

Watkins and Marchand consulted closely with the British Board of Film Classification during post-production. The final edit needed just six seconds of cuts to bring it in under the wire.

“Momentum and the BBFC had a very collaborative relationship, working together back and forth,” Watkins says. “No one came to me and asked for anything unconscionable. The changes were very small, just a few frames here and there.”

The film’s success has established Radcliffe’s credentials as a box office draw beyond “Potter.” Although the critics haven’t unanimously praised his performance, his presence has mobilized a wider audience of all ages than would normally have turned out for a horror pic or a literary period piece.

Radcliffe himself chased the role, spotting its potential as a stepping stone into an adult career.

“It felt (mildly) risky casting him, because you always wonder if an actor can pull something off. But when I met with Daniel, he was very smart, very considered, and after we tested him, that relaxed a lot of people,” Watkins says.

Marchand says that he saw Radcliffe as a hook to snare post-”Potter” teens.Yet arguably, the increasingly Gothic elements of the Potter franchise groomed its young audience for a further step into the dark side with “Woman in Black.” The ghosts, werewolves and spooky Victoriana of the Potter films hark back to the original Hammer horror movies.

“The Woman in Black” is Hammer’s fourth film since it was bought by Exclusive in 2008, but the first to bring the brand back to life. The label made “The Resident” and “Let Me In” in the U.S., and “Wake Wood” in Ireland, but these didn’t resonate with Hammer’s distinctively British heritage.

” ‘The Woman in Black’ has positioned Hammer exactly where we have been trying to put it for the past four years,” notes Sinclair. “We have realized that Britishness is an asset, so we have decided that from now on, almost all of our Hammer films will be set in the U.K.”

Oakes adds, “We will continue to do some projects elsewhere — we’re developing ‘The Abominable Snowman,’ which is set in Nepal, and we’re developing ‘Boneshaker’ with Cross Creek in America. But it’s very, very important for the brand that we shoot one or two films in the U.K. each year. The best British brands sell around the world. Hammer is a heritage brand, and we want to reinvent it in the same way as Burberry reinvented its legacy for a modern audience.”

The next Hammer project, “The Quiet Ones,” is set at Cambridge U in the 1970s, inspired by the true story of students who tried to create a poltergeist. The label has also picked up “Gaslight,” which was a 2011 Black List script, in which Jack the Ripper turns detective in Victorian London.

“What we hope the film will do, is to bring the Hammer brand back into the consciousness of young people. The name is beloved among cinephiles and the film industry, but we’ve just started on the journey of making it known for the 21st century audience,” Sinclair says.

Nonetheless, he and Goldman were initially concerned about the signal a 12A rating would send out.

“Jane and I were wondering, are people going to think that because it’s a 12A, it won’t be scary?” Watkins says. “What I’ve been trying to stress to everyone is that it’s only a 12A because there’s no sex, no violence, no blood, no gore — but don’t think it isn’t scary, because it is.”

Moviegoers agree, making the film the No. 1 earner of 2012 in the U.K. so far, with $33 million, and a North American cume of $53 million.

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