Fittingly for the first film shot in England in 35 years to bear the Hammer banner, “The Woman in Black” competently resurrects that hoariest of horror-movie conceits, the haunted house. Helmer James Watkins (“Eden Lake”) and scripter Jane Goldman judiciously combine moves from the classic scare-’em-ups with new tricks from recent J-horror pics to retell Susan Hill’s oft-adapted Victorian gothic pastiche. Daniel Radcliffe’s stiff thesping reps the weakest element here, but nevertheless, his presence will help the pic go bump in the B.O. night when it opens wide Stateside on Feb. 3.
Hill’s elegantly spare 1983 novel has spawned not only radio and TV versions in Blighty, but also the second-longest running legit work in London (“The Mousetrap” still holds the record). Playwright Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation has been lauded for its economical use of just a handful of thesps and simple but effective theatrical devices to tell the story of how young lawyer Arthur Kipps encounters a ghostly femme in a secluded northern English manse whose malevolent reach extends through time and space. Although the various adaptations have differed significantly, the one constant is the way the Woman in Black’s love for her own lost child has been perverted into a baleful vendetta against others’ progeny, neatly exploiting the primal fears of any parent.
It’s no surprise that for the more literal-minded and commercially driven medium of film, this latest adaptation ups the tot body count in order to make the stakes more immediate for contempo auds. The other canny reworking in Goldman’s script (surprisingly joke-free, given her tendency to crack wise in “Kick-Ass” and “X-Men: First Class”) is to make Kipps (Radcliffe) a single parent from the outset. He’s still shaken by the passing of his wife Stella (Sophie Stuckey), who died in echt-Victorian fashion while giving birth four years earlier to their son, Joseph (Misha Handley).
The restructuring allows Goldman and helmer Watkins to introduce the notions of bereavement and spiritualism much earlier in the story. It also gives Kipps an extra motivation to finish the unpleasant job he’s been sent to do in the Yorkshire village of Crythin Gifford: sorting through a recently deceased old lady’s papers in her secluded rundown mansion. If not for the threat of Kipps being fired, and therefore losing the means to care for Joseph, many an aud would wonder why he doesn’t leave after the first signs of spookiness.
And very creepy the house is, indeed. Situated at the end of a snaking causeway (partly filmed near Osea Island, arguably cinema’s favorite Essex location) periodically cut off by tides and sea mists, the decrepit stately pile offers a widescreen wonderland of dark nooks and crepuscular crannies, dusty drapes and brocade dressing screens. Production designer Kave Quinn has gone to town with the livid-bruise, mottled-corpse palette and the creepy Victoriana, and whoever was in charge of props deserves kudos for the marvelous selection of eerie toys alone — cymbal-clanging monkeys, leprous dolls, a sinister zoetrope — that populate the abandoned nursery.
As Kipps settles in for several nights of terror, despite warnings from the clearly terrified local townsfolk, the shocks are duly delivered with textbook precision, accompanied by huge jolts of discordant noise. Watkins is more innovative, however, in the way he builds suspense via uncanny suggestions in the pic’s stiller moments. Only shot-by-shot analysis will reveal whether there really are figures and faces lurking, barely seen, at the edge of the frame, which contrib-ute very subtly to the atmosphere of unease, or whether they are just figments of the imagination. The more obviously visible specters, meanwhile, including the titular Woman in Black (Liz White), owe a particular debt to recent Asian pics, especially Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu,” in the unsettling, fast-gliding way they move and appear.
It’s a pity, then, that lead Radcliffe doesn’t bring more charisma to the party, although the “Harry Potter” franchise has made him skilled enough now in the art of looking frightened. The problem is when he’s not called on to tremble and look bug-eyed, Radcliffe still seems too puppyish to convince as a parent himself.
Thankfully, the well-chosen supporting cast is on hand to lend ballast, especially Ciaran Hinds as a skeptical local landowner and Janet McTeer as his deranged-by-grief wife. The child thesps also deserve praise for their unsettling stillness; with their pallid makeup and creepy old-fashioned clothes, they rep a corps of corpses-in-the-making. White, with the assist of thick latex makeup, also impresses, especially when shrieking like a banshee.
If interest and energy start to flag somewhat in the second half, it’s not the fault of lenser Tim Maurice-Jones, who coaxes finely theatrical effects with minimal light sources and some canny work with the grading. The final reveal is treacly and sentimental, but will probably go down well with viewers inclined toward spiritualist claptrap.