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The Woman In Black: An Occasionally Scary Ghost Story
Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is still depressed over his wife’s passing four years ago and his work is suffering as a result. As a last chance, his boss gives him an assignment to take care of some business in a remote village; he’s to deal with a mountain of paperwork needed to put a manor on the market – one that’s owner recently died and which the locals don’t seem very eager to sell. Undeterred by the very hostile, unhelpful locals, Kipps begins to work at the house and there he starts to see the ghost of the eponymous woman in black. He slowly pieces the puzzle together, figuring out her identity and the relationship between her and the deaths, both past and present, of many of the children in the village.
The film’s selling point seems to be Daniel Radcliffe, who stars in his first role post Harry Potter, which is great except that he happens to be the weakest part of the film. He’s not bad per se, he’s just woefully miscast. He plays a depressed father to a four-year old whose mother died during childbirth. The thing is, Radcliffe doesn’t look old enough to be a father let alone to a four-year old, and the way he interacts with his onscreen child is more reminiscent of a sibling relationship, or one between a babysitter and their ward, rather than that of a father and child. Other than that, he does a good job portraying a man grappling with feelings of guilt and forced to be in a place that reminds him of his deepest fear at every turn.
What’s really different about this film, at least compared to newer horror productions, is that it allows for breathing space. The film doesn’t shy away from long, quiet shots that aim to set up the atmosphere. These scenes lull you into a false sense of complacency before boom! A shrieking head pops out, or a wind-up toy suddenly starts moving. Thankfully, the screaming humans, running around frantically, are kept to a minimum. The film is also filled with children who get up and quietly commit suicide. The opening scene – which is of three young girls playing – shows them as they get up, cross over to the window and in sync, silently throw themselves out of it. As beautiful as it is, it is also disturbing – it sets up the film’s quietly eerie tone very well.
For the most part though, this is a run of the mill ghost story where floorboards creak, doors slam at their own accord and shadowy figures pop out, scare the daylights out of everyone then disappear again. There’s nothing in it that we haven’t seen a billion times before and while it isn’t scary – not by a long shot – it will make you jumpy; the occasionally over the top score makes sure of that. The Woman in Black brings nothing new to the table but it makes better use of the generic ghost tricks than most films of this ilk.
You’ve got to feel sorry for Pierce Brosnan; it’s difficult to evaluate how good an actor he is because it’s impossible to picture him outside of his stint as James Bond and, for us at least, he will be most remembered for getting a antelope thrown at his head by Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire in that strangely satisfying pool scene.
In fact, these two roles have come to define his career and his roles often fit into one of two categories – smooth, charming Englishman, or slimy Casanova. His role as a Cambridge poetry professor in romantic comedy, Some Kind of Beautiful, straddles the line between both, but only serves to prove that this very particular 90s style of rom-com is becoming less and less relevant.
The story goes like this; womanising professor, Richard Haig, impregnates a student of his, Kate (Alba), and tries to do right by her, by putting a ring on it, so to speak, and moving from England to California. Their imposed married life soon comes crashing down when Kate falls for another man, but Richard stays close to his son. Down on his luck and facing possible deportation, Richard finds solace in Kate’s step-sister, Olivia, who comes to develop feelings for him.
Directed by Tom Vaughan, the film pieces together the most trite rom-com clichés to sickly effect and frames its interpretation of romance in the most clichéd, and outdated, of ways. Brosnan’s character is pushed as a sort of misunderstood here; a victim of his own overflowing charm, his magnetism being as much a burden as it is a way to lure his unsuspecting students and other similarly beset women. Subsequently, Alba is painted as boring and promiscuous woman and essentially plays a bit-part in the telling of this most unnecessary of narratives. This in turn characterises Olivia as the fire-cracker woman who tames Richard. Granted, Hayek does the whole fiery Latino sexpot thing pretty well, but the whole thing folds one cliché into another – something that extends to Malcol McDowell’s turn as a forcibly amusing, grumpy old man, while Richard’s son does little but force a generic and hollow sense of sentimentality into proceedings.
In the end, the most interesting thing about this production, as harsh as it may seem, is that it’s another plaque on the Vaughan rom-com wall of shame – see Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher in 2008 flop, What Happens in Vegas. A film like this essentially suffers from what one might call like the domino cliché effect. Once the first cliché hits, it’s impossible to stop the rest.
A truly original horror film isn’t easy to come by these days; even the likes of Paranormal Activity and, going further back, The Blair Witch Project don’t stand-up to second viewing after the dust has settled from the initial impact. Irish production, The Canal, isn’t the film that’s going to change that, but it does have its positives.
The story tells of a husband troubled by paranoia; film archivist, David (Evans), suspects that his wife, Alice (Hoekstra), is having an affair and his suspicions are proven right. Amidst the impending demise of his marriage, he also comes to discover that a gruesome murder was committed in his house some one hundred years ago and he becomes increasingly unstable when Alice goes missing and he becomes the number one suspect.
While it’s far from perfect, writer/director, Ivan Kavanagh, manages to create a sense of dread and anticipation throughout, all the while resisting the conventions that have come to define the modern horror genre. It wouldn’t be completely off-point to call The Canal a more traditional, old-school haunted-house horror, with the dreary Irish backdrop making for an apt setting.
The aesthetic seems to have seeped into the dialogue, however, and paints the script with dreary deadpan interactions. But what will keep you engaged most is David’s slow emotional descent; it gives the film a humanness that many modern horrors lack. But as we’ve mentioned, this is a film not cut from the same mould and European film continues to produce diverse and unique horror.
Again, this is far from perfect and there’s a Hollywood polish that moviegoers have become accustomed to that’s lacking and at times this is a film that will make you feel uncomfortable in the best of ways. It’s as much as psycho-thriller as a horror and despite an underwhelming conclusion, it’s indie horrors like this that will impact the genre in the decade to come.