Creaky old spooky houses. Pale-faced dead kids. Boggy marshes littered with makeshift graves. An entire English hamlet scared of its own shadow. Ghosts that play havoc with the nerves of unwelcome houseguests. There isn’t a Victorian horror trope this warmed-over horror movie doesn’t trot out.
And yet, before getting to the business of taking the movie apart, every review of The Woman in Black will first have to mention that Daniel Radcliffe, the movie’s lead, just finished a 10-year sentence as the star of the Harry Potter movies. Well, I’m mentioning it. I haven’t seen the Potter movies, but I know who Radcliffe is — I recognize him from posters and promotional cups and god knows what other marketing detritus. The fact that Radcliffe is a known face is the only reason he’s been (mis)cast in this movie, and his presence, unfortunately, changes the most important question about The Woman in Black from “Is it any good?” to “Can Radcliffe carry a movie by himself, without the built-in fanbase of followers of the Potter franchise?”
Clearly, Radcliffe was offered the lead in this gothic-esque, softcore horror movie because — with its magic and hokum and English locales — it bears some resemblance to the world of Harry Potter, and the filmmakers figured they could pick up a few thousand carry-over Potter fans on opening day. That kind of marketing is about as much as can be read into this movie. And the answer to the important question is: If Radcliffe were to star in a good movie, he’d probably carry it just fine. He delivers lines with what seems to be the appropriate level of verisimilitude for a leading actor, and he’s just a step above ridiculous for a 22 year old playing a grizzled widower. But The Woman in Black isn’t a good movie, and the minute Radcliffe agreed to star in it, he pretty much made certain he’d look like a fool and that he’d get blamed for ruining the movie. Daniel Day-Lewis couldn’t have made this a good movie, although he would have been slightly more believable in Radcliffe’s roll, since it calls for an adult and Radcliffe fights an uphill battle trying to resemble one.
And if the magic of Harry Potter — that is, a recognizable face, something to keep us interested — can’t save The Woman in Black from being an awkwardly-paced, by-the-numbers PG-13 horror movie, then nothing can. Though, to be fair, the movie is so poorly constructed that he isn’t allowed much of a chance to act. His dialogue scenes, designed to keep the spare plot rolling, are few and far between. His character, a struggling lawyer and father named Arthur Kipps, spends most of his time creeping warily down dark hallways with a candle in his outstretched hand, hoping to illuminate the ghosts or dead children he expects to find. At one point, Radcliffe has to crawl into a grave, duck his head under a pool of mud, and haul out a buggy with the preserved body of a murdered child inside. He disappears for a full minute, while the great character actor Ciaran Hinds, who we’re supposed to believe is Radcliffe’s peer even though he’s clearly 40 years older, watches anxiously. While he’s under, the movie’s only real tension is created — mainly in Hinds’ face. It’s a shame for Radcliffe that the best part of the film happened while he’s offscreen, but it’s a bigger shame for the audience to have to wait so long for something even mildly gripping.