Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is still suffering after the death of his wife in childbirth a couple of years ago, but he has his young son Joseph (Misha Handley) to take care of so must carry on and cope with his grief as best he can. This does not mean Joseph has not noticed his father's doldrums, so when a chance arises to secure a better position working for the lawyers' office which employs him, Arthur makes up his mind to do his best, not least because if he doesn't his job is on the line. This involves him taking a journey out to the middle of nowhere, in a village near the coast, to sort out the papers of a deceased woman...
A deceased woman... in black! This was the adaptation of Susan Hill's modern classic ghost story, scripted with some alterations by Jane Goldman with Hill's blessing to expand it from a short novel into something substantial enough to last a good ninety minutes of screen time. Seasoned horror fans tended to turn up their noses at it, but there was no mistaking the success it became, the first real hit for the revitalised Hammer films, the British studio which had done so much to make their nation's cinema so well known for its chillers. While the source was more subtle if not afraid to go for the big scares through mounting dread, the film was more enthusiastic about making the audience jump out of its seat.
In that manner there were more shameless "BOO!" moments on the silver screen than had been in the book, or in the eighties UK television version for that matter, but if you managed to adjust to its diving headlong into strenuous efforts to creep you out then there was much to enjoy here. Children played a large part of the anxiety, as the tone moved from the then-prevalent instance of horror movies trying to make you fear the little ones, to an alternative where you would fear for them and what the apparition of the title would do next time she is seen. Therefore if children made you uneasy for either reason, here was a film planning to capitalise on that unease - something for everyone here, as far as those frights went anyway.
Once Arthur reaches the village he finds the man he had to meet telling him there was no need for Arthur to show up in person as he would have sent him the relevant documents. But our intrepid hero wants to do the job right and to do so must visit the dead woman's mansion house, which in fine shocker fashion lies out in the middle of miles of marshes and is cut off from the mainland for quite some time depending on the tides. No matter how much he is warned away from doing so, he effectively bribes the cart driver to take him there, and once he reaches it and is left alone - what's that? Could he have spotted a dark figure standing out in the middle of the copse next to the house... where a small, family graveyard is? Who could she have possibly been?
Well, if you can't work that out you're not paying attention, and as suspected the sight of the Woman in Black, or Jennet (Liz White) as she was known, portends an unavoidable tragedy: the death of a child. Sure enough, when Arthur returns to the village, a little girl collapses in his arms when he's in the police station, and the wheels are set in motion to offer another entry in that genre of sceptic gets dose of terror to wake them up to genuine qualities of the supernatural. Except this was rendered less of a cliché since Arthur is contemplating the spirit world even before the film has started thanks to his bereavement, and Radcliffe was appropriately doomladen and earnest, proving for many audiences there was life in the cinema for him away from the inescapable Harry Potter. Director James Watkins worked up some icily miserable visuals, at times approximating a vivid portrait of bone-chilled Hell even if Goldman's addition of laying the ghost to rest seemed like overdoing it. But if a horror movie's worth doing, it's worth overdoing. Music by Marco Beltrami.