The Woman in Black: Then vs. Now

Disclaimer: This post is full of spoilers.

The latest version of the Susan Hill novel The Woman in Black arrived in theaters a week ago and made a solid impression at the box office. By no means is it a great film, in fact it might be too generous to even call it “good,” but it’s a strong effort if nothing else.

As a fan of the earlier, 1989 adaptation of the novel, I came into the movie with mixed expectations. I knew not to expect the restraint and maturity of the earlier film. Having never read the original novel (shame on me, I know (EDIT: This has since been rectified)) and without the benefit of having seen the stage play (by all accounts excellent), I had no idea as to whether or not this newest film would be more or less faithful to Susan Hill’s original story. As such, all I could really hope for was that this new film would still elicit some competent chills, and on that front I wasn’t terribly disappointed. In some respects this newest adaption improves on its predecessor, though I still prefer the 1989 film overall for its sophistication.

For me, the first thing that stands out about the 2012 film is how much more effort it puts into being “horrifying” when compared to the 1989 version. From the interspersed, almost random scenes depicting a mysterious woman in white, to shot after shot after shot of creepy dolls (apparently, every toy doll in the early 20th century was made entirely of children’s nightmares), this movie spends every damn second of its run-time reminding you that you’re watching a horror movie. Everything that isn’t blanketed in shadows or fog is bathed in frigid, pallid hues that suck any sense of hope out of the atmosphere. The setting is a bog-town that doesn’t merely look foggy and cold, but like it exists on some forsaken, shroud-filled corner of the Earth where ghosts are part of the natural habitat. This is a town where it would be weird if there wasn’t at least one haunted house nearby.

This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but again, the original film was more to my liking because it didn’t seem to be trying so damn hard. It had atmosphere to spare, yes, but it wasn’t drenching with dread. It didn’t look like it was filmed on location in purgatory. It’s like the difference between a pretty girl who’s wearing too much makeup, too much perfume and too little of everything else, and a pretty girl who knows she doesn’t need to overdo it. They might both be considered objectively attractive, but subjectively, the confidence of the latter is preferable. The 2012 film has its charms, certainly, but it also seems to be masking its insecurities behind a barrage of sensory distractions when it isn’t necessary.

In the latest version of the film, Arthur Kipps (played by Daniel Radcliffe) starts off with a dead wife (the aforementioned woman in white) whom he believes may be trying to communicate with him from beyond the grave.  We see next to nothing of his family life, save for a short scene early on where his son helps inform the audience that his dad is a sad sad man who misses the hell out of his wife. Radcliffe does what he can with such a limited, almost lifeless character, but there’s not a hell of a lot of room for creativity here. This is a forlorn figure who infects an already disconsolate story with a greater sense of despair and inevitability. He’s damn near a dead man walking; emotionally distant, preoccupied with spirits and the afterlife. In the 1989 film, Kipps is an ordinary man who happens into a horror story. He was given a chance to connect with the audience as a real person, a guy who is allowed to smile and quip; a guy who seems like he hasn’t lost his will to live. This makes it more frightening when the Woman in Black gets around to terrorizing him, because he’s a regular person you can relate to. In the 2012 film Kipps is more like some kind of human horror magnet. If you met him on the street you’d think, “I bet he hangs out in graveyards on his days off.”

In a way, however, this serves the story. It gives Kipps cause to revisit the blatantly haunted Eel Marsh house, home of the titular Woman in Black. The 1989 film didn’t really need to give Kipps a reason to stay, since nearly all of the supernatural happenings occurred over the course of one night, and the house is isolated on an island that can’t be reached when the tide rolls in. In the newest adaptation, which expands on the story to some benefit, Kipps spends a few nights in the house, even going back one final time to perform what amounts to an impromptu, amateur exorcism. If not for his demeanor and interest in “spiritualism,” you’d be able to make the same (often lazy) complaint / joke that people usually make in regard to haunted house movies: why not leave the house immediately and stay the hell away.

The new movie also expands the story in ways that slightly improve on the story of the original film. The townspeople here are given legitimate cause to keep Arthur Kipps away from the house and be evasive about why they’re being so damn inhospitable to him. The townspeople in the original film are practically indifferent to the possibility that sightings of the Woman in Black usually lead to a child’s death. Indeed, in the original film, the Woman in Black seems more like an harbinger of some forthcoming fatal accident. It’s implied that she is the catalyst for said accidents, but it’s unclear if she’s directly involved. In the 2012 version, she is blatantly malevolent, actually influencing the children of the town to commit suicide whenever she is seen by someone. She is also only ever seen on the grounds of her home or on the road that leads to it, so it makes sense for the locals to do what they can to keep anyone and everyone away from the old house.

This new film also gives the character of Sam Daily, one of very few people in town who is actually helpful to Kipps, a decent reason for assisting Kipps during his stay, instead of being one of the many folks trying to chase the young lawyer away. He has good cause, like most others, to believe that the Woman in Black is responsible for the suicides of local children, given that his own son drowned himself at her behest, but his wife (played in rather over-the-top fashion) is apparently possessed by his son’s “lost” spirit. Daily is in deliberate denial about the Woman in Black, because to accept her for what she is would mean accepting that his boy isn’t waiting for him in heaven, but trapped in town like the ghosts of all of the other children the Woman in Black has claimed. It’s the kind of grim, subtle terror the movie introduces, but doesn’t have any interest in exploring, unfortunately.

Although this isn’t a “Hollywood” production, strictly speaking, this is ultimately a Hollywood-style modern horror flick. It’s more interested in delivering a series of big scares than letting the terror patiently develop as the movie progresses. Again, not inherently a bad thing, and the movie actually delivers some wonderfully conceived moments of horror. While I’m a fan of patient, ethereal, psychological horror, I’m also a big fan of intense, unsubtle, visceral horror as well. I think that loud scare chords are an overused tactic, but there’s something wonderful about a well-executed, visually and audibly arresting moment of horror. The 1989 film’s signature moment comes when the Woman in Black visits Kipps in his bedroom while he’s in the midst of a fever dream. She comes charging into the scene so suddenly it looks like an editing mistake, and she’s unleashing a bizarre screech that sounds like a hoarse old woman is trying to imitate Godzilla’s roar. It’s much scarier than I’m making it sound here, I assure you.

The 2012 film has a call-back to that splendid moment during its climax, with the Woman in Black charging Kipps until her hate-filled face fills the entire screen. But the most brilliant and affecting moment in the film for me came when the mud-caked ghost / zombie of a child that drowned in the marsh crawls out of the disgusting muck of its cross-marked grave and comes toward the house it used to call home. Kipps witnesses this through the window of an upstairs bedroom, a cheap (but effective) “mirror scare” follows, and then he walks downstairs to find something is trying to open the front door. It’s reminiscent of the moment in “The Monkey’s Paw” when the unseen, dead and mangled son tries to come home as his mother has wished. It’s an excellent scene that earns the right to milk the horror for all it’s worth.

There are other very-strong moments in the film as well. A scene where the titular character slowly stalks toward a sleeping Kipps is staged so well it manages to be a standout despite it’s predictability (at that point in the movie, there’s zero chance she’s going to do him any actual harm or even manage to physically interact with him).

More subtly, the movie raises interesting, unsettling ideas about what it’s like to actually be a ghost, particularly the kind of ghost that the Woman in Black is. Full of hate, self-tormented, driven to suicide by madness and grief, unable to forgive or be at peace. Unable to think of anything but vengeance, even after the party that wronged her is long gone. Even before her death, the Woman in Black’s madness and suffering is chronicled in a series of letters that Kipps reads, wherein her penmanship degenerates from elegant to nearly-illegible scrawling as her madness grows. That has to be a miserable existence, to say nothing of the ghost children trapped on Earth along with her. The original film gives us a chronicle of the haunting from the perspective of the Woman in Black’s surviving sister (the original target of the spirit’s wrath), who recorded an audio diary on a Dictaphone before she died. Seeing both films gives me the luxury of enjoying both perspectives, and makes me more eager to read the book and see what more there is to discover.

As I mentioned initially, I still prefer the original film version of The Woman in Black by a good margin, but I’m not upset with this “remake.” While it doesn’t measure up to its predecessor, and certainly has its faults and missed opportunities, it also adds something to a story that is nuanced enough to warrant exploration.

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