"The Woman in Black" very nearly suffocates under the mounting weight of its gothic kitsch — an abandoned house, child ghosts, spooky dolls, oh my! — but nevertheless summons ornately crafted, old-fashioned suspense.
This is the second film for British director James Watkins, whose previous "Eden Lake" gathered an intriguing story about class out of a confrontation in the woods between a vacationing couple (Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly) and a violent gang of youths.
Watkins prefers the term "thriller" to "horror," and by these two films, it's obvious he's interested in using fright for more than just shock and something closer to real life.
In his first post-Potter film, Daniel Radcliffe stars as the struggling, widowed London lawyer Arthur Kipps. With a little facial scruff and clad in an early 20th century suit of the time, Radcliffe looks respectably adult.
Kipps is a morose young man, still grieving the loss of his wife in childbirth. His now 4-year-old son (Misha Handley) already has him down, in caricature, drawing him as a stick figure with a giant frown. Yes, young Harry Potter is now a (believable) dad, which means we can all collectively sigh and pretend to shoot ourselves.
He's dispatched to the (fictional) remote eastern British village of Crythin Gifford to put in order the estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. The sense of foreboding comes quickly and thickly, as the townspeople eye him suspiciously and Kipps is placed in an inn room where three young sisters killed themselves.
Death hangs over the town so heavily that whimpering comes even from a parrot, which no doubt had plenty of chances to mimic the sound.
The ivy-covered Eel Marsh House, which Kipps is to sort, is classically menacing in the Victorian way. Set back from the village down the ominously named Nine Lives Causeway, it's an island in a cold marsh that ebbs with the tide.
Inside the cobwebbed home, reflections, apparitions and shadows steadily increase as Kipps digs into the history of the Drablows as well as the village. Tragedies of the town's children populate its past and present — occurrences that seem connected to a lurking, dark figure.
As he always does, Ciaran Hinds considerably helps the film. (He also played the lead in another fine film that mixed grief with the supernatural, 2010's "The Eclipse.")
Hinds plays Samuel Daily, the only friend in town to Kipps and, himself, one of those who has lost a child. His wife (an enjoyably loony Janet McTeer) has gone off the deep end, to the point that her two small dogs dine at the table with them like Paris Hilton Chihuahuas.
Daily is the staunch holdout in the superstitious town. Declaring paranormal worries "rubbish," he warns Kipps not to "go chasing shadows." But even he, when Kipps declares he'll stay overnight at Eel Marsh, raises an eyebrow and says, "Take the dog."
"The Woman in Black" is adapted from Susan Hill's 1983 novel, which was earlier turned into a long-running play in London. It's the second film from the reconstituted Hammer Film Productions, the famed British house of horror best known for the lush gothics it churned out in the '60s and '70s.
Watkins' film, nifty and taught, is a worthy enough heir to that tradition. It's a film, ultimately, about the trappings of grief wallowing.
As a wand-less detective, Radcliffe comports himself well. He plays Kipps with downcast desperation, striving simultaneously after the memory of his wife and the future of his son.
The basic clichÉs on which the film is built threaten to overwhelm it. And it could certainly use a little more dialogue and a bit less creaky hallways. But the appeal of a good ol' ghost story is strong, and the simplicity of "The Woman in Black" suits the tradition.
"The Woman in Black," a CBS Films release, is rated PG-13 for thematic material and violence, disturbing images. Running time: 95 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.