If gushing press quotes or night-vision footage of screaming cinemagoers is unlikely to convince you of a new horror release’s fear factor, this is the acid test in terror you’ve been waiting for. And for a movie that’s reportedly crammed with coronary-inducing shocks and scares, it seems only proper that The Woman In Black’s own nerve-shredding pedigree should be suitably assessed as the movie recently arrived on DVD and Blu-ray here in the UK.
Part I: The Woman In Black West End play at Covent Garden’s Fortune Theatre, London
Telling the harrowing tale of a widowed lawyer who finds himself hounded by a vengeful spirit in the depths of a remote coastal village, this Victorian chiller has long been renowned among theatregoers since making its theatrical debut back in 1987. So, by way of comparison to Hammer’s newly-released movie adaptation, the first instalment of this week’s “shock experiment” brings us to London’s Fortune Theatre. One of various online scribes who’ve agreed to act as willing test subjects, I’m presented with a simple heart monitor belt which I’m relieved to see is far removed from the monstrous, sci-fi horror-style contraption I’d initially envisioned.
Far surpassing the sum of its humble, two-actor parts, this chilling exercise in tension sees an artful mix of creeping shadows, atmospheric sound effects and frantic theatrics expertly orchestrated into the stuff of nightmares. With the better part of the production played out through veiled semi-darkness, the multidirectional screams, whispers and glimpses featured here tease the imagination to maximum effect, leaving numerous members of the audience audibly shocked and uneasy. Summoning up varying stages of shock, awe and horror, acclaimed actor Ben Deery makes for a convincingly tormented Arthur Kipps whose emotionally fraught rendition contrasts enormously with Daniel Radcliffe’s altogether more restrained take on the role.
But, while my imagination may be reeling with intrigue and suspense, there’s little sign from my not-so-tell-tale heart to suggest anything dramatically untoward. Ranging from 74 beats per minute up to a peak of 84 at the play’s nightmarish grand finale, these inconclusive findings leave me suspecting that, as a desensitised horror addict, I’m hardly the ideal candidate for this experiment.
Part II: Movie screening, Hammer Horror movie montage and Q&A with Hammer President Simon Oakes
Taking a cinematic turn on this, the second instalment of The Woman In Black shock experiment, a drizzly Thursday evening finds us comfortably ensconced in The Prince Charles Cinema’s cosily-proportioned picture house. While tonight’s main attraction may be Hammer Horror’s most successful title to date, it fast becomes apparent that this is no simple bid to drum up press as the accompanying Hammer movie montage and Q&A gets underway. Unearthed from a vast archive of classic and previously unseen footage, the quality to which the hallowed “21 Classics” are restored is nothing short of painstaking, with clips from classic and fresh cuts alike speaking volumes for the franchise’s historic body of work. Hammer President Simon Oakes reflects, “So far as the Hammer revamp was concerned, it originated from a burning desire to revitalise what I believe is a classic British brand, and we set the bar as high as we could with The Woman In Black. In order to make any great elevated genre movie like this one, you have to care about the characters, to identify and sympathise with them.”
Following a thick and fast slew of questions from the horror hounds and roving reporters gathered here tonight, the movie begins and I consult my monitor, noting a resting rate of 80 at the film’s fiendishly twisted opening credits. Rich in sumptuously gothic atmospherics, this stylishly shot offering makes for instantly absorbing viewing, with Daniel Radcliffe’s sombre, pallbearer-like take on Arthur Kipps proving a harmonious fit with the film’s unflinchingly stark, washed-out camerawork. From gloomy shots of the desolate and decaying coastal village of Cryphin Gifford to Kipps’ grief-ridden emotional numbness, there’s an overwhelming aura of death throughout that looms as large and potent as midnight sea mist.
But for all The Woman In Black’s atmospheric plus points, the funhouse-style scares with which it is generously rigged come off undeniably hackneyed in places, with the clichéd likes of sinister windup toys smacking more of child’s play than supernatural chills. As in the play, there’s relatively little variation in heart rate, with just a handful of surprises raising my pulse up to a maximum of 90bpm. That said, The Woman In Black is, above all else, a unique title whose cinematic strengths arguably lie more in slow-burning atmospherics and intrigue than the frantic mechanics of terror.