Daniel Radcliffe graduates from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for this turn-of-the-century ghost tale involving an über-creepy manse and the mysterious deaths of children from a nearby village. The 'Harry Potter' star turns in his wand and witchy ways battling an old, scary man dressed in black for a disconsolate widowed father much too curious for his own good, clashing with an old, scary woman dressed in black. The result is a terribly enjoyable and scary fright-fest that recalls the classic atmospherics of Hammer Films Studios, which coincidentally takes producing credit in this film from 'Eden Lake' director James Watkins and 'Kick-Ass' writer Jane Goldman.
Based on the horror novel of the same name by Susan Hill, it becomes quickly apparent 'The Woman in Black' is a different kind of paranormal spine-chiller — and a hair-raising one at that. One which contemporary viewers will feel unaccustomed to after a long deluge — several years, in fact — of graphic, screeching, and unexpected acts of violence. Evoking those wonderfully unique sensibilities of legendary Hammer productions, the film comes with a pot-boiler appeal that slowly adds layers and builds to moments of bloodcurdling chills. It's all about generating a brooding, gothic atmosphere before delivering the shocking frights, much of which is done as if out of the corner of our eyes and within the terrifyingly menacing shadows decorating the interior of the English manor.
Watkins and company definitely succeed in recreating and breathing new life to the classic style, particularly when Radcliffe arrives in the quaint village that seems to live in perpetual, overcast dreariness. The inhabitants appear to harbor a dreadful secret involving the short lifespan of their children, and none are too keen in seeing outsiders drudging through their past. Naturally, that's precisely what Radcliffe's Arthur Kipps is doing there, assigned to the property dealings of the Eel Marsh House. (Doesn't that just sound dreadfully spooky?) Sitting atop a small hill surrounded by marshland, the place is your standard haunted mansion, adorned with cobweb-covered woodwork, creepy paintings of pale faces and lots of disturbingly nightmarish wind-up toys which not unexpectedly turn on by their own accord. But the setup towards the upswept manor is so nicely measured with a thick ominous air that customary plot devices are easily forgiven.
For a good chunk of the movie's runtime, Radcliffe does very little talking, spending it mostly brooding over his wife's death in childbirth and reacting to the weird, unwelcoming behavior of the locals. In this respect, the still-maturing actor is quite excellent and convincing, carrying the entire film with ease and taking great command of the frame, hugely dependent on physical expression over dialogue. Coming from the phenomenally successful franchise, the move to a vastly different genre is a smart one, giving audiences a glimpse of his talents in more adult-oriented roles. Of course, it doesn't hurt to work opposite Ciarán Hinds as the only resident willing to help Radcliffe's lawyer handle the ghostly estate of Alice Drablow, giving the production some dramatic seriousness and depth.
In all fairness, 'The Woman in Black' does come with a few drawbacks, most notably a somewhat derivative plot which wraps up far too neatly and feels moderately unsatisfying in the end. Questions about how the people in the village are related to the personal family matters of the estate are never fully addressed and remain unanswered. Yet, the movie is largely entertaining because it terrifically balances a gloomy atmosphere that calls to mind the stylish elegance of Hammer Films with modern-day frights, which will seem like a dreadfully slow build-up for contemporary audiences unfamiliar with those dearly-beloved horror classics. It's been a long time since the road to an eerie, abandoned mansion was this much fun or as spine-chillingly creepy.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Woman in Black' arrives to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD25 disc with a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. The disc and advertisement come inside a blue eco-vortex keepcase with a glossy slipcover. Viewers are greeted with a series of skippable trailers at startup, and afterwards switch to the standard main menu option with full-motion clips and music.
Debuting with a squeaky-clean 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1), 'The Woman in Black' materializes onto Blu-ray with a first-rate video presentation. Much of the film is set at night inside the spooky mansion, and black levels meet expectations with lots of opulent, penetrating shadows strewn throughout. One or two scenes falter just a tad, but it's nothing too disastrous. Visibility of the minor details, the ghostly drapery and the eerie architecture are superb even at the movie's darkest and most dreary. The photography comes with a push towards the lifeless grays to reflect a sense of endless overcast, but contrast is consistent and crisp. The color palette is also intentionally subdued to fit with the film's overall tone, but primaries are cleanly rendered with healthy flesh tones on the cast. The image is also highly-detailed with exceptional definition and clarity, especially in daylight sequences where we can clearly make out the smallest impressions on the stones in the village or see every pore and wrinkle on the faces of actors.
All in all, the movie arrives with an outstanding picture quality.
As with most any horror movie, this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack for 'The Woman in Black' arrives with a great deal of intentionality, particularly during the jump scares. Yet, the track does a fantastic job by maintaining superb detailed clarity between the highs and mids, never distorting or sounding too bright in these sudden decibel changes. Imaging is widespread and engaging as noise and music abruptly move from the center of the screen to the other speakers. Dialogue is never drowned out and remains intelligible. The low-end is surprisingly palpable and highly responsive. It's not exactly wall-rattling, but adequate and punchy enough to unexpectedly shock listeners. The rears are employed occasionally for a bit of ambience and a few good discrete effects, but it truly feels convincing or as atmospheric as the visuals. Nonetheless, it's plenty to generate some hair-raising creepiness, making this an excellent lossless mix.
Supplements are identical to the day-and-date DVD release.
Breathing new life into the atmospheric classics of Hammer Films, 'The Woman in Black' takes its time in building the proper mood before delivering some spine-tingling frights. From director James Watkins and writer Jane Goldman adapting Susan Hill's novel, the movie is a great deal of fun, returning to stylish elegance over a constant barrage of jump scares and sure to please those familiar with classic horror. The Blu-ray debuts with an outstanding picture quality and an excellent audio presentation, but special features are sadly in short supply. Nonetheless, fans will be very happy with their purchase while others with even the smallest interest should definitely check it out.