Nowadays, there are three types of female stock characters in the horror genre: the helpless bimbo, the protagonist damsel and — in the case of “The Woman in Black” — the scary-ass girl-slash-woman with long black hair. And though director James Watkins’s (“Eden Lake”) haunted-house tale is one of the most old-fashioned horror films in years, its mysterious atmosphere is chilling enough to set audiences on edge.

The Woman in Black

At Quality 16 and Rave
CBS Films


Adapted from the Susan Hill novel of the same name, “The Woman in Black” forgoes blood thrills, machetes and whatever creative weapon Hollywood can dream up. There aren’t any sick death traps or killer videotapes. And, unfortunately, the story takes place in turn-of-the-century United Kingdom, which sadly excludes the possibility of radioactive zombies. Instead, the story follows a well-established formula that still manages to entertain. It tells the tale of a young lawyer named Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe, he’s freakin’ Harry Potter) and his candlelit search for answers about a curse that’s killing the children of a remote village.

Most of the scares in “The Woman in Black” rarely cause the audience to leap out of their bones, so to speak. The audience is well aware that Kipps will hear a suspicious noise, and that when he goes to discover its source, he will find nothing but a rodent. Plus, the number of times he goes up and down a certain flight of stairs is enough to inspire a new drinking game. Kipps goes up the stairs? Take a shot. Kipps goes down the stairs? Take a shot. Yet somehow the film avoids becoming annoying.

The camera shots are limited when they want to toy with our imaginations and prolong the suspense. Yet they know when to cut it short and reveal what we already know. It’s natural — not forced — terror. Combine that with the dilapidated set, and there’s an eerie notion that you are being watched at every turn.

So, why is Kipps staying in a creepy, rundown house in a village he believes is cursed by an angry ghost? The answer is simple, maybe easy, but also surprisingly human. As a young man in a law firm, Kipps once had a promising future with his wife, but the birth of their son was her death. He suffers tremendously, and his work ethic falters. And now, he must stay and finish this job: to settle the affairs of an old house and ultimately sell it, to save his career, and his only family, his son.

Such a backstory sounds adequate on paper, but it’s hardly moving on the silver screen with the amateurish way it’s often spat out in the exposition. Nevertheless, Radcliffe’s performance is respectable to the point that it’s not awful — though it’s admittedly bizarre to see him as a father — and the story is significant enough that its attempt to engage audiences is actually admirable.

While it may not offer anything original, the thrills of “The Woman in Black” are satisfying and well-executed. It’s a haunted-house movie, which means dark hallways, cobwebbed corners and musty portraits. But there are enough affecting images such as creepy nursery toys to shake audiences. Powered by a ghost-sleuth story with a human core that falters without completely failing, “The Woman in Black” is paradoxically able to freshen up the horror landscape with old-school formulas.

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