Hammer Films produced many of the very best gothic horror films in the 1950s and 1960s. After its resurrection just a few years ago, Hammer now seems set to continue its tradition onward if The Woman in Black is any indicator. Hammer returns to its glory days of supernatural storytelling, invoking the Victorian-type ghost story in superb style. Easily one of the most stylish, most chilling horror films of the last couple of decades, this one also has a heart (as the best always do).The story plays on both the cards of the heartbroken young widower in grief over his wife’s death as well as the both sad and frightening vengeful ghost whose mystery plays out and creating a truly terrifying build-up.
For his part, Daniel Radcliffe shows he can work as a reliable adult lead, supported by a highly experienced ensemble cast led by Ciarán Hinds. The film itself glories in its dark, broken beauty and makes one reminisce about haunted house classics like The Innocents (1961). There are also fairly potent visual reminders of other classic films such as The Phantom Carriage (1921) and Hammer’s own Night Creatures(1962). The colors, though by no means absent, are mostly muted (making a great contrast in the few instances where they exist as striking). The music is minimal, unlike most American horror films that overwhelm with score from beginning to end.
The story, adapted directly from the Susan Hill novel of the same name (itself also the source of one of the most iconic, longest-running English plays) features all of the classic elements of a haunted house story: the large, imposing mansion, the foggy, stormy atmosphere, a background in tragedy… it’s all there. The tragedy compels us to listen to the story and to open our minds to it. We each experience tragedy and loss in our lives, and that seeking to connect with what (and who) we’ve lost can lead us down a path of desperation, but we don’t know what doors and to what horrors that desperation can lead to. That is one of the great appeals of the gothic ghost story, and it plays out in excellence here. As a traditional ghost story film, The Woman in Black may be “by the book,” but the book is as chilling as one could imagine.