FEBRUARY 3, 2012
Now THIS is how to do a book adaptation, Hammer! While not a bad film, I will forever be disappointed that Let Me In (the first movie out of the gate for this Hammer revival) was not an adaptation of the source novel, but a remake of the Swedish film, copying scenes/shots almost line for line at times while continuing to leave out elements from the novel that hadn’t made it into the first movie (and also retaining some of that movie’s deviations). But The Woman In Black carries only the basic plot over from the 1989 version – and it’s a better movie to boot.
Right off the bat it goes into new directions. While the other movie has the main character’s wife still alive, our hero here is a widower (in the original book – which I should note I haven’t read – he doesn’t get married until after the main events of the story), which doesn’t really make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, but at least it’s showing that they’re making an effort to do their own thing separate from the other productions. They also spend more time in the town than the other film, and condense the events to a few days, whereas the other movie seemed to take place over a couple weeks. At no point did I get the sense that this team was looking at the old movie for any sort of guidance or inspiration - which is exactly how ALL "remakes" should be (I don't like to use the term for adaptations, but Let Me In is a remake of Let The Right One In, plain and simple).
But ignoring all that, it simply WORKS as an old-school ghost/haunted house type story. I never realized it until pointed out the other day, but Hammer never actually tackled a ghost film in their heyday – the closest of the ones I've seen would be Night Creatures, but that doesn’t count because (spoiler) the “ghosts” were guys in costumes (though they were clearly shot as actual ghosts in the first hour or so of the movie – they floated!). However it fits right in with the films of old; not only is it a period piece (few Hammer films took place at the time they were produced) but it’s got the Gothic mansion at its center, and the fog machines constantly cranked to 11, and even a town populated with suspicious folk. It’s a damn shame when they resort to a pretty obvious CGI effect for one scare around the one hour mark – otherwise the film could have been a well preserved relic in terms of its technical aspects.
(That said, I truly hope you can find a theater showing it on 35mm – the digital transfer I saw was pretty lousy and was a giant mismatch with the film’s old-school approach.)
Otherwise, my only real complaint would be an over-abundance (not reliance) on jump scares punctuated with a BANG! on the soundtrack. I was hoping that the success of Insidious – which doesn’t have a single fake scare in the entire film – would kick-start the death of such silliness, but alas – a faucet, a bird, a wind-up toy… all these things provide an attempt at a scare, and while they’re not all unsuccessful (the faucet one actually works well), it starts to put the movie closer to bad teen horror remake territory (When A Stranger Calls and Prom Night being the worst offenders), when it’s otherwise a more “adult” horror film.
Speaking of adults, I guess I can’t not talk about Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe, in his first feature lead outside of the magic world. He’s pretty good, actually, especially considering he spends most of the movie by himself and not talking – there’s a segment that runs at least 15 minutes in which he only utters a single line. It’s not easy to command the audience’s attention without saying much or interacting with anything besides old papers and candles, but he pulls it off well. He might be a bit young for the role – the character has a four year old son and he shot the film when he was 20 – but he’s clearly got what it takes to move beyond Potter and continue a successful career if he chooses.
He’s aided considerably by the great Ciarán Hinds (who was in the last Potter himself; and I’ll also mention here that the guy who starred in the 1989 version was the actor who played James Potter!), who plays the only guy in town that doesn’t give him the evil eye. Some of their stuff is similar to the other movie, but Hinds creates a wonderfully conflicted, interesting character as opposed to that one’s rather dull exposition machine. There’s a terrific, underplayed bit where he drives Radcliffe to the mansion after dismissing the townsfolk’s crazy superstitions, yet he still stops his car short of the front gate and makes him walk the rest of the way. Little tidbits like that (as well as a well-placed sight gag involving his wife’s “twins”) give the character much life – it’s almost a bummer he’s not around more often. Note - if you enjoy his performance here, please check out the underrated/underseen The Eclipse, in which he stars as a widower himself.
As for the horror stuff, it’s pretty good. The jump scares are thankfully balanced with some wonderfully subtle bits, including one of those great “you don’t realize a ghost is in the shot until it moves” shots, which is thankfully NOT given a musical sting to alert us to it. Director James Watkins (Eden Lake – a movie I really need to watch again; Fassbender! The insanely gorgeous Mary Reilly!) also has fun with reflections, particularly a very cool bit in which the reflection of a candle makes it look like the glass eyes of various dolls are moving to watch Radcliffe as he walks past.
And the production designer should be given some sort of award on the spot; not only is the house a TERRIFIC find (way better than the rather bland one in the other film), but the various children’s toys are all remarkably “odd” in some way – even when they’re not being wound up or used for jump scares, there’s something unsettling about them (the rabbit in the trunk? Gah!). It’s a wonderful looking film too; the scope imagery is a great fit for this sort of thing, where your eyes will constantly be darting around the frame looking for ghosts. The casting director also did a fine job with the “locals”, many of them seemingly stepped out of one of the old Dracula or Frankenstein films. Radcliffe and Hinds are the only recognizable folks in the film (to my eyes), and since they play most of their scenes alone or together with no one else it actually sort of fits their antagonistic relationship with the town: they stick out in more ways than one.
Also, I won’t spoil it, but kudos on the ending scene, which is different than the book and other movie, but still quite satisfying. A buddy of mine pointed out what he thought was a plot hole in the film, but this “hole” combined with the ending fits into something I feel we don’t see enough of in horror films (swipe at your own risk): a hero who is actually wrong about how to save the day. Might not be the most conventional choice, but horror movies are cheap enough to produce that they shouldn’t care about such things. Yeah, you can’t kill off Megan Fox at the end of Transformers 2 when 300 million is on the line, but when you’re dealing with movies that cost less than what most Hollywood movies pull in on their opening weekend, there should be more freedom to do the unconventional thing – even if it’s a PG-13.
Speaking of which, the PG-13 rating is a fairly harsh one – I could definitely see the MPAA giving this one an R, same as they did with the similarly “old-school” Dead Silence, which was designed for that rating only to be screwed over by Universal who wanted to capitalize on the filmmakers’ ties to the Saw series. The two films would make a lovely double feature in fact; this is more successful overall, but Dead Silence has the originality going for it (and a better score). At any rate, it’s no game-changer, but it’s the most fully satisfying film yet from the new Hammer, and should satisfy the teens who just want to be scared as well as the adults who want an interesting story to go along with it.
What say you?