Greetings, spooky lovers! As promised, November’s posts focus on ghost stories. This week, I’m writing up The Woman in Black [2012, directed by James Watkins]. This remake is based on a very beloved surprise-hit 1989 made-for-British-tv movie. It’s been said in some internet forums that it has the scariest ending ever made. I’ve seen it. Honestly? Not a poo-your-pants moment. I mean really, what do you think? I’ll assume the comments I read were mostly based in nostalgia-fear, which doesn’t age well. Just stick with this remake. But if you really want to geek out, here’s a link to the original.
This one’s hard to swallow. There’s no other way to say it: this film is packed from start to finish with mass child murder. And it shows the children dying in gruesome and awful ways. I’m not sure what to make of that choice, and I’m astonished that The Woman in Black only had a PG-13 rating.
Spiritualism and the everyday ghost
Fellow occult nerds will find moments of bliss in the story. It takes place right at the turn of the century, when spiritualism, mediums, psychics, and spooky parlor games were at their height. The paranormal was everyday conversation in a way that wasn’t again popularized until the satanic panic in the 1970’s and 80’s, and I would argue, in the recent decade with the meteoric rise of ghost hunting tv shows. (Side bar: Zak Baggins is a massive douche that harasses spirits and he should really lay off the steroids.)
Our protagonist Arthur sees his dead wife everywhere. This isn’t a question of whether or not he saw her; it doesn’t matter. She is real, she is everywhere, and because of the burst of spiritualism’s popularity, Arthur seems to constantly wonder if he should just reach out to her because she is available to him. Another key piece of the spiritualism movement (and of attempting to contact spirits) is intent, so when Arthur broadcasts his grief, thoughts of death, and willingness to investigate Jennet’s house and life story, it’s no surprise that he becomes surrounded by ghosts.
Callbacks to film and horror
The Woman in Black is a deliberate film. Every shot is carefully framed, and every detail is crucial to the story. Despite the annoying desaturated colors, I love how this film isn’t afraid to be hideous. Eel Marsh House (can I get an “Amen!” for that choice of name?) is filthy, really filthy, painted in cracking blacks and deep browns. It’s a disgusting old estate but it is still stunning. In fact, I’d like to offer this house as an example to Crimson Peaks – THIS is how you use a haunted house, and THIS is how you set a scene with atmosphere, ya dig? Not dripping with blood and ghosts whose hearts are pumping ectoplasm all over the floor.
Eel Marsh House is away from the world, and even away from the stuck-in-time village adjacent to it. It exists on a lonely island that is only accessible when the tide goes out. It is completely afloat. How gorgeous is that?
The toys in the nursery are terrifying windup toys that are disturbingly close in stature and makeup to the taxidermied animals on the first floor. Oh my God, those monkeys. The taxidermied See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys are so effing creepy. All of the toys and (literally) stuffed animals have dark eyes, and the film allows Arthur’s passing candlelight to reflect and move in their eyes, giving the illusion that their eyes are following him.
Watkins makes the fascinating choice to use changing POV’s with his camera, sometimes swinging the camera around like a character is looking around wildly. Because he doesn’t use a handycam in these moments (bless him), we as viewers aren’t worried about our dinner reappearing. This technique reminded me of 1970’s horror.
The scares last for a really long time. I’d say the entire second act of this film is composed of many scares leading into other scares, which then circle back to the first scares in an echoing, aching way. This really feels like a constant haunting. We feel the ghost Jennet’s pain, and Arthur’s pain and confusion and helplessness.
The Woman In Black relies on negative space – what isn’t seen – to tell the story. The things happening outside of the focus are just as important as those happening in-focus. Everything is misty and hard to see. Black shapes may exist as black out-of-focus fog and then disappear.
Where are the women?
One of my criticisms of this film is the stereotyped way it handles women. Think about the women you see at any point in this film. Tell me I’m wrong:
- Arthur’s wife: We know nothing about her, only that she is blonde, and was a mother and wife. That is all she was in life and in death. She never speaks.
- Jennet, the ghost – The woman in black. The crazy hag who lost her mind, lost her son, and wreaks havoc on the living because she’s just a big ol’ meanie crazy pants.
- The nanny: Does she even have a name? I don’t think so.
- Elisabeth: Another crazy lady, who dresses her doggies up in twin outfits and thinks they are her children. She just had to go mad, see, because she lost her kids. WHICH WERE HER ONLY IDENTITY. (Sidebar: new life goal: become rich enough to dress up my cats in matching jammies and be able to afford butlers who don’t bat an eye when I ask them to “bring my babies” to the dinner table for supper.)
- Every other wife in the village: they are just that. Village wives. Doing village wife things, no names, they all look the same.
And there are many. They are as follows:
- What is up with the fake kid’s crayon drawing? That is so obviously done by an adult. It’s also done in crayon, which had just been invented in 1903.
- What is up with jolly sailor’s outfits on all children in Victorian period pieces? I CAN’T.
- I really hate when horror flicks take the cute doggie into a scary situation. It’s a cheap and upsetting tactic that signals to me as a critical viewer that the writer ran out of ideas. That doggie didn’t sign up to follow you into hell, so please don’t ask it to.
- If you’re going to go crazy-lady and write threatening messages on your deceased child’s nursery wall, why in God’s name would you cover it up with the exact same wallpaper??
Heart-eyed emoji + ghost emoji
There is much to love here, as well:
- I love the Dracula-feel to the carriage ride out to Eel Marsh House.
- Thumbs up to riding on trains with dogs sitting next to you in the seat.
- There are small scares as well as big scares. Example: a small hand smacks a window pane in the corner of a frame. It’s not a jump-scare, just totally unnerving.
- Jennet’s handwriting changes as her grief unravels her state of mind.
- The rocking chair that Jennet uses to die by suicide. A rocking chair is meant to be a comforting thing, but when Jennet uses it, both in life and death, it is a violent thing.
It was actually this movie that convinced me that Daniel Radcliffe was a talented actor. Nerd note: “Kipps” was Arthur’s original last name in the novel this story originated from, which was changed for the made-for-tv-movie to the painfully obvious “Kidd.” I’m happy this screenwriter used the author’s original choice.
Arthur is a decent character. I probably give him more credit than he’s actually worth, but it’s rare to see a competent and fearless protagonist in a horror flick.
The best horror sequence. Ever.
I’m not entirely speaking in hyperbole here. There is a sequence in the second act that I nearly pee myself over, I love it so effing much. It’s when Arthur is reading through Jennet’s papers and starts to doze.
Center frame but out of focus, a door opens. We see the ghost calmly step into fuzzy frame, a shock of white face buried in black. This is her house. Arthur starts to doze from the whiskey, the doggie dozing on the floor. The camera takes her POV – moving toward Arthur’s back. We even see her shadow in a mirror while she approaches – that’s how real she is in this house. The doggie growls but doesn’t lift his head. The shot cuts to Arthur’s profile, 3 candles burning in the background. One flame flickers. Then the camera cuts to one of those effing monkeys – the Speak No Evil monkey.
Oooohhhhhh, I love it so much. Mmmmfff.
Aaaaand the worst ending. Ever.
Remember how I said that the original flick was supposed to have a terrifying ending? You know what this has? A horrible, typical, Hollywood ending. I hate this ending. It could have ended with Arthur choosing to live with the living after so much living with the dead, but nooooo, it had to go with “ain’t that a shame” nihilism. Booo. It even ends with a final close-up of Jennet the ghost’s face for some stupid reason. The only way there could have been a final middle finger to the viewer is if the ending credits were set to dubstep.
So, I will re-write this ending as I see fit: Arthur steps off the train with his son and unnamed Nanny. He calls the unnamed Nanny by her name, thanks her for her endless hard work and gives her a raise and says he supports women’s right to vote. The three step into the misty morning sunlight and make their way through the bustling London streets.
Thanks for hanging in there with me, kiddos. Let’s all make sure we don’t stir up a vengeful spirit over the Thanksgiving holiday. Next month, I’ll probably go with some seasonal choices, so look forward to that. Happy Thanksgiving!