The first discernible line of dialogue in “The Woman in Black” is an offscreen mother wailing, “Aaaahhh! My babies!” Her “babies” — young girls, actually, but we’ll cut the mother some semantic slack during her time of grief — have just met a mysterious and untimely end. The movie has thus established that it is to be an old-style melodrama with histrionics, creepy children, and simple ghost stories. You understand the tone even more when you know it’s set at the turn of the last century in a cobwebbed English mansion near a village populated by superstitious provincials.
But there is such a thing as being too simple, and “The Woman in Black,” directed by James Watkins (“Eden Lake”) and starring Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Potter role, suffers from it. Based somewhat loosely on Susan Hill’s novel (also the source of a long-running British stage play), the film is supposed to be light on story and heavy on atmosphere, but it only gets one of those things right. Though it has the elements of an atmospheric chiller, it doesn’t use them well enough to actually establish the atmosphere or the chills except in brief, occasional bursts.
Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, who looks about 18 but is already a lawyer, a widower, and the father of a 4-year-old boy. Kipps is assigned by his firm to handle the affairs of an old client who has just died in a small town, where he finds that the locals don’t like outsiders, don’t want people poking around, and so forth. The deceased lived at the vast Eel Marsh House, accessible by a causeway that disappears at high tide (a great spooky detail), and Kipps elects to stay at the place overnight while he sorts through the paperwork.
Is the house haunted by a vengeful spirit or spirits? Maybe! (Yes.) In between strange sightings and unusual sounds, Kipps uncovers the truth about what happened before, all of which proves to be standard ghost-story fodder. I don’t fault the movie for its uncomplicated, campfire-story-esque plot, which I think is charming. The trouble is that it’s dully repetitive. The lengthy middle section of the film plays out like this: Kipps sees or hears something in another part of the house or on the foggy estate; he goes to investigate and finds nothing; then he sees or hears something in another part of the house, maybe even the same room he just came from; he goes to investigate and finds nothing; then there is yet another sound or image that draws his attention; etc., etc. I can only take so much of Daniel Radcliffe timidly tiptoeing around a dark house with a candle in his hand and a blank look of apprehension on his face. The amount I can take is maybe five minutes, and the movie has 30 minutes of it.
Perhaps I’m making the film sound worse than it is. Putting aside the tedious walking-around-the-house-to-see-what’s-making-that-creaking-noise sequence, it’s always watchable, and sometimes modestly intriguing. I can see it becoming a staple of slumber parties and teen-appropriate movie nights. It’s too slight an effort to cause any serious goosebumps, though, and it’s bound to fade from memory as soon as the sun comes up.
C+ (1 hr., 35 min.; )