Dir. James Watkins
The essential irony of ghost stories -- at least as they relate to films -- is they're usually much better off without the ghosts. You want all the spooky adornments: the blown out candles and creeping shadows along the walls, you just don't want to actually have to visit the ghostly apparition itself, because as soon as you do, the fear begins to recede like sudsy water down a bathtub drain. As always, what we can imagine in our own fertile imaginations is generally far more effective in scaring us than a woman in a fright wig, a little kid covered in mud, or -- worst of all -- a lame CGI apparition glowing before you. Why is The Shining so effectively creepy with its ghosts? Because Kubrick realized they were far more unnerving when they were every bit like us (just with peculiar smiles).
Daniel Radcliffe's newest vehicle, a turn-of-the-century haunted house story about a young barrister who is forced to spend time up in the North of England in order to work through the extensive papers and personal effects of a recently deceased elderly client in her abundantly haunted mansion, shows more restraint than most films of its ilk, but there still comes time when all the lurking shadows, and half-seen faces in mirrors have to reveal themselves -- and their particular purpose in haunting -- and thus you have the inevitable let-down. Before we get to that point, however, there are some surprisingly effective elements. Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a widower still very much missing his beautiful wife, and trying to raise their young son with dwindling prospects in his profession. As a last attempt to stick with his current firm, he takes on the dubious assignment to travel north, and stumbles into a miserable, besieged town, terrified of strangers and overly protective of their children. With good reason, it turns out: Every time someone heads to the haunted mansion far outside of town -- so removed from regular society, it becomes an island to itself when the tide is in -- and sees the ghostly apparition of the woman in black, one of the young children in the town inexplicably kills themselves in grisly fashion. Befriending one such aggrieved parent, Daily (Ciarán Hinds), Kipps has to conduct his job even as children around him start lighting themselves on fire and drinking lye.
The film works best when it concentrates its energy on the mansion itself. Beyond creepy and grotesque, it features a nearby graveyard, dark corners and crevices that even open windows can't seem to illuminate, and a child's nursery with the most macabre collection of dolls this side of J.F. Sebastian's abode in Blade Runner. Unfortunately, the film is far less successful at establishing much for its main protagonist to do other than stumble around the place holding a hatchet and looking utterly bewildered, even as the audience has figured every aspect of his situation far more quickly. Radcliffe is dutifully earnest and charming, but he's not capable of adding the necessary unstable element to his character's visage. He's a straight man in a house of horrors. In place of character development, the film is forced to overuse the standard grab-bag of genre tricks: You'll be hearing sudden swoops of atonal strings for hours after you see it.