Film Review: ‘The Woman in Black,” sister to La Llorona and the Lady of the Lake

By Your Salonniere

The terrifying images of The Woman in Black are burned on the imagination’s retina the minute you leave the theater. She flits in the shadows. When you close your eyes, she’s in your face, and if you think about it long enough, you don’t want to look behind your back.

This film is a roller coaster ride, crammed with terrifying thrills at every turn. A whole family bolted the seats next to mine ten minutes into the movie, which left a disturbingly empty gap that I kept glancing to every now and again, nervous at what I might find sitting there in replacement. Probably about a handful of kids and teenagers leapt down from the above seats, running out the theater only ten minutes after the initial family fled. The rest of the moviegoers who dared to stay, gasped at every other scene, one screamed in surprise, but every horrific twist was followed with nervous giggles. We were laughing at ourselves, which only added to the excitement.

The setting and atmosphere of the film was perfectly cold, damp, and dreary, palpably miserable as any thrill seeker might expect from a small northern English town cowering from the haunted estate aptly called Eel Marsh. The design of the house was both an echoing of the nearby village but also a stark contrast. As director James Watkins explains in his “Anatomy of a Scene” from The New York Times, the furniture, the wall paper, and the wood paneling lend to rich Baroque colors that spark the screen in an otherwise deathly grim horror-scape.

The role for Danielle Radcliffe seems a natural and logical leap, just enough of an evolution from the fearless mishap of a hero of his former filmic self; he plays a lawyer, recently turned widower, raising his three-year old son in the city of London; the city ready to abandon him as fast as the happiness he briefly knew through his short marriage. Radcliffe wisely sticks to the supernatural and Victorian realm, which maintains the suspension of belief since a leap to a rom-com like Friends with Benefits or a roughhouse adventure flick such as Man on a Ledge would be too much of a stretch so fresh out of the series that made him and shaped a generation.

At the peak of Downton Abbey fever and riding the success of Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger, The Women in Black, as feature film, spins a yarn that never gets old, the story of the country house, but unlike ITV’s hit show, instead of highlighting the grandeur and perpetuating the power of the elite, more like Sarah Waters with her latest acclaimed novel, The Woman in Black reveals the decay, chipping away at the corrosive class war between the haves and have-nots. At the heart of this story is the shared loss of a young husband and a castaway mother, both of them at the mercy of the privileged, flailing under the thumb of those better situated.

The Lady of the Lake
The Lady of the Lake and Excalibur. Artist: H. J. Ford

The old ghost stories of haunted estates seem to be horror stories of the Other, only this Other is one’s own history and the rotten power of the elite. Since history generally focuses on the victors and the affluent, this particular slant inverts our natural notion of the Other, focusing on people who are supposed to edify a culture and town. The grand and noble made grotesque. Everything representing upper crust culture has been corrupted, and we find they’re rotten to the core.

Clearly The Woman in Black plays on the time-worn trope of the hysterical woman, her sisters are La Llorona and the lady in white that Wilkie Collins played with in his own country estate horror tale, which also harkens back to Arthurian legend, the Lady of the Lake, a chimeric female spirit who steals the infant Lancelot. These women, distraught and overly emotional to the point of being psychotic, lament the loss of their children and therefore must make others suffer the same fate. On a more benign bent, they may be related to ignis fatuus or will-o-the-wisps, spirits found primarily on lone country paths or lurking in the bogs and marshes, determined to lead children and lost souls astray, but in Susan Hills’ novel turned into one of England’s longest running stage-plays and adapted by Jane Goldman, this long-lived archetype reaches back to more mythic roots as vicious and unforgiving, invoking the spirit of a vengeful mother goddess hungry for human sacrifice. La Llorona

A fitting resurrection for the horror-makers of Hammer Productions, The Woman in Black is scary enough to make you scream aloud, cover your eyes, and cringe while gripping the arm of whoever happens to sit next to you, but the chills inspired are so romantically rendered in beautiful colors and rich textures, that its doubly hard to turn from the terrible.

To get the goosebumps going check out the following articles:

A Guardian Interview with Susan Hill and Jane Goldman on The Woman in Black where they give advice to anyone who’s itching to write their own horror story:

Let’s pretend I am hoping to write a horror story and have come to you both for advice. What I particularly want to understand is structure. What would your top tips be?

JG Always build. If you start at fever pitch, there’s nowhere to go. It’s like music: there’s an ebb and flow. Establish character – otherwise it is difficult to connect with what is frightening. You need to be invested in what happens. The characters are your conduit to the story. Many modern horror films are fun but not frightening because one has not connected with the characters.

SH If you were writing a short ghost story, I would say: start very quietly and go: one, two, three jump. Or start with a jump and make it jumpier. But with a long story it must have rises and falls. The Turn of the Screw describes it perfectly: you keep turning and, just before the end, let go a bit so your audience relaxes and maybe have a description of scenery…

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