The Woman in Black, or: Harry Potter Versus a Scary Ghost

Posted: February 13, 2012 in Braak, crotchety ranting, poetics, reviews
Tags: , , , ,

Today I am here to talk to you about The Woman in Black, and just so we’re clear here:  I am not going to “review” The Woman in Black, like I’m Roger Ebert and I’m trying to help you decide how to spend a Saturday night.  A review like that is going to say things like, “I won’t give too much away, but…”  I am going to give everything away.  If you do not want the movie “spoiled” for you, then stop reading at once.  Maybe get back to work?  It’s the middle of the day, you probably have some kind of job you should be doing.

Anyway, The Woman in Black.

So, over at Film Freak Central, one of my favorite movie reviewers — Walter Chaw (author of the fabulous Transformers:  Asshole review) — describes this movie as a “beautifully-outfitted, brilliantly-designed Victorian jack-in-the-box”:  a lot of pretty scenes and well-made costumes, all to the purpose of having shit jump out at you.  This is basically correct — it’s not got much in the way of story, and Harry Potter basically has eight lines and spends the rest of the movie looking panicked.  I don’t know that this makes the movie implicitly bad, though — Jeanine and I saw it in a theater with a bunch of teenagers, and they obligingly screamed and shrieked whenever a giant bird popped out of the fireplace (twice, since you asked), or the titular Woman in Black appeared in an unexpected location (suddenly: at the end of the hall; in the reflection in the window; STANDING RIGHT BEHIND YOU AUUUUGGGH!).

Harry! The calls are coming from INSIDE THE WINDOW! AUUUUUGH!

There are also children in mortal peril — the Woman in Black, due to VENGEANCE — goes around town murdering children by causing them to commit suicide in just horrible ways (drinking lye, jumping out a window, setting themselves on fire).  Such suicides are immediately followed by a woman screaming “My baby!” off screen.  This is not some kind of phantom scream (I don’t think); I think this is actually supposed to be the mother of whoever just died being upset about it, but it keeps happening and she always sounds the same and I’m not going to lie: it’s kind of hilarious.

Now is the part where I explain the whole plot, so stick with me here.  If you’ve already seen the movie, go ahead and skip forward a bit.  If you’ve only read the book or seen the play, there are some differences, so maybe read this part.

So, what happens is this:  Harry Potter plays Arthur Kipps, who is a lawyer, he’s got a son and his wife died not long ago.  His lawfirm sends Kipps to Crythin Gifford (sp?), a town up…I guess near Yorkshire.  It’s all marshes and peat bogs, anyway.  Kipps has to sort through the paperwork of this woman who just died (she is NOT the woman in black) so the firm can sell her house.  In the process, Kipps discovers that the woman had taken her sister’s child (because the real mother was crazy? this is not explained, actually), kept the truth of the boy’s parentage from him, and then the kid died in a carriage accident — just careened into the bog and drowned, because shit like that happens all the time in Yorkshire, I guess.  Anyway, the real mom flips out, hangs herself, and now has become a ghost that haunts the town and causes children to commit suicide.  Kipps tries to solve the problem by jumping in the peat bog and pulling out the corpse of the kid and reuniting it with the ghost of his mother, but she still has VENGEANCE, so she tries to kill Kipps’ kid by making him jump in front of a train.

There’s a tricky bit in here that I want to clarify.  Two things:  1) Kipps has been haunted by visions of his dead wife, wearing a white dress and sort of you know, ethereally floating around.  He’s not seeing her in the real world, I think, I think these are memories or weird dreams or something. 2) The Woman in Black, after she causes kids to be murdered, is somehow able to keep them?  They are stuck with her and stand around looking gloomy now that they’re dead.

So, Kipps’ boy jumps in front of the train, Kipps heroically leaps onto the train tracks to save him. At first we think they died, because we see the train rumble by.  And then we think they survived, because we see Kipps and the kid alive on the tracks.  And then we see that the train station is empty, and actually they both DID die.  Kipps’ dead wife appears and takes the two of them away, keeping them free from the clutches of the Woman in Black, who is also there trying to get them.

(For those of you keeping count:  this is now two movies in which Daniel Radcliffe has played a character who died and woke up in a train station.)

So, see?  Kipps’ kid is saved by the ghost of his dead mother, who is wearing a white dress.  I am bothered by this, as you can imagine, because when I watch it, in my imagination there is a Hollywood Writer in the theater next to me.  He is wearing a cheap suit and has very white teeth, and when the Woman in White appears he keeps nudging me in the arm and saying, “See?  Get it?  Get it?  Black and white…they’re OPPOSITES!”

Motherfucker won’t go away.

He embodies what I’m slowly coming to think of as “fortune-cookie philosophy,” which is something you all probably know when you see it:  complex moral, philosophical, or theological issues (which are interesting), all boiled down to something you could put in a fortune cookie (so that boneheads can understand it).  I hate it, but it’s easy to ignore since it’s basically just the last five minutes of the movie, or what have you.

Now, so, let’s get down to some brass tacks here.  I won’t say a lot about the filmatism of the movie, because you guys know I don’t know about that shit.  I will say that for some reason, the movie felt like it was composed entirely of oppressive close-ups — everything was a close or medium-range shot, and so I didn’t get a good sense of what rooms looked like, or where they existed in relationship to each other:  I did get a lot of good views of Daniel Radcliffe’s increasingly sweaty face.  Maybe it’s my imagination (I had just spent three hours playing a videogame where I could look around as much as I wanted, so maybe I was instinctively resenting the fact that I couldn’t turn my head), but I don’t think so, and I think it’s problematic when it comes to stories about ghosts.

There are two basic functions of the ghost-as-an-element-of-horror (i.e., the “ghost” as a tool that scares you, as opposed to a ghost-as-an-element-of-story), that I describe in my Eigen League post on G-g-g-g-ghosts!:  firstly, they ARE where they aren’t supposed to be, and secondly, they cause people to behave in ways that they aren’t supposed to behave.  The Woman in Black as a film rests entirely on these two elements of horror:  shit jumping out at you, little kids acting weird.  This is literally every scare in the movie, and, in fact it’s not that bad a way to do it — once you know the jumps are coming, you’re constantly kind of half-expecting them, and if the filmmakers change it up a little bit, you’re going to be in this constant state of tension every time someone opens a door or looks in a mirror or something.

The problem with the jumping out bits is that “being where you aren’t supposed to be” relies on our natural human sense of geography:  to assemble images and pictures in a way that gives us a notion for what shape a room is, or where rooms lie with respect to each other.  And because the movie was so oppressively close-up, we (or, at least, I) never really got the strong sense of geography that you need in order to be genuinely creeped out (as opposed to startled) by the ghostliness.  It’s a subtle distinction that I think is embodied by this one scene:

There’s one scare that I thought was the eeriest which wasn’t a “jump out and get him” thing at all:  during a thunderstorm at the Scary House, Kipps looks out the upstairs window and sees the body of the little boy crawl out of the bog and walk towards the house.  Just go right up to the front door to the house that Kipps is in right now.

This is genuinely spooky, as opposed to startling.  It happens slowly, nothing jumps out, there’s nothing sudden.  But we’ve got a really good sense of where Kipps is (at the upstairs window), of the kid coming out of the bog (because we see it happen — no danger that this is just some random kid who wandered out into the marshes), and of where he is going — that is, directly towards the house, in a way that Kipps couldn’t possibly stop, even if this was the sort of story where it was reasonable for Harry Potter to punch a ghost.

What this whole thing reveals are, I think, two key failures.  The first is that, the movie does rely too heavily on jump-scares, as opposed to plain eeriness — further hampered by the lack of a good sense of geography.   Without that geography, there’s no easy way to effectively raise the stakes on the scares, in terms of eeriness, so the filmmakers just raise it in terms of weird shit happening (the Woman appears in the window, some peat bog slime boils out of the bed, &c.) and a crazy lady screaming.

The second is the actual story.  You may recognize the idea of the evil ghost keeping the ghost-children captive as being from the 1999 remake of The Haunting — as well as some key elements involving scary houses and a story that centers around an evil nursery (though that was from the original The Haunting).  You may also recognize the part about digging up a child’s body in order to stop an evil murder-ghost only to have it not work at all as being basically the same as the ending of The Ring.  You would not be far off to suggest that The Woman in Black is a kind of Victorian mash-up of these too movies, plotwise, and this yields kind of a problem.

Listen: she never sleeps, is the thing. I'm just saying.

The thing is, ghosts-as-an-element-of-story are primarily used for one thing:  “secrets, hidden, haunt the modern day”.  It’s such a straightforward and obvious use of ghosts that there’s no way to miss it and, frankly, I’m not sure what else you’d use ghosts for.  Certainly, it was hardly used here:  Kipps discovers the secret of the Woman in Black (that her sister took her son away, and the Woman went crazy and hanged herself after he died), in one scene after reading a letter.  He discovers that this presages the death of a child in a second scene later on, but up until the very end of the movie, these two ideas suffer essentially a complete disconnect.  It’s not like Kipps has to sort out all the paperwork at the house in order to STOP THE GHOST, or the second half of the movie is him running around town trying to rescue children.

The children, in this case, are basically an ancillary aesthetic to the story of a man being scared by weird things in a house.  And the part about digging up the dead boy in order to appease the ghost is just…well, it feels weird, partly because it fails.  In the first place, there’s no reason to assume you’d even be able to get a body out of a peat bog after it’s been sitting in there for twenty years, and while the whole thing is a nice structural reversal (we’ve saved the day! Oh, no, wait, we haven’t!), it’s not nearly as good as the reversal in The Ring.

Samara in The Ring doesn’t care about getting her body out of the well — she doesn’t stop murdering because that’s not what she wanted.  The Woman in Black doesn’t stop murdering after she’s reunited with the corpse of her son because…she doesn’t.  She’s just still mad, I guess.  We hear her say, “I will never forgive,” and good, that proves that she was in fact motivated in some way, but it’s not like we saw a history of the townspeople failing to appease the ghost, you know?  This wasn’t a story about how a crazy person (and then a crazy ghost) can’t be appeased no matter what, because that bit at the end is the only time they try to appease the evil spirit.

The consequence of this is that the “captured ghosts of children who can’t escape” and the “she just wants her son back” aspects of the story crowd out what would otherwise be a reasonable enough plot:  lawyer comes to town to sort through paperwork, uncovers a town’s old secret and perpetual shame, stirs up the ghost.  That story is, “a terrible secret, hidden, returns to haunt the modern day”, but there’s no room for it, because we’ve also got to get in this shit about “she’s taking the children!” and “she will never forgive due to VENGEANCE!” and also, “A bunch of weird shit had better pop out and scare people!”

These stakes, once raised, muddle the plot in a way that stops The Woman in Black from being a ghost story, and makes it more like a ghost roller-coaster.  A ghost-themed-ride at Universal Studios Theme Park.

So, now, by way of comparison, let’s look at the play The Woman in Black, which has been running in London on the West End for, like, twenty years or something.

It’s generally the case that genre works (science fiction, fantasy, horror) aren’t very common onstage in modern theater.  I think this is because theater has been unduly poisoned by realism, which is a genre for boneheads, but there are some people who will argue that horror just doesn’t work onstage.  That horror, like science fiction, necessarily requires a level of verisimilitude that’s just impossible to replicate onstage (so:  you can’t do a Wolf-Man play, because there’s no way to make a really realistic looking Wolf-Man, and if you have a fake-looking Wolf-Man then the horror goes out the window — that’s the idea, anyway).  Those are the same people who think that the ultimate evolution of horror, as a genre, is this found-footage style of movie, because it maximizes verisimilitude (in some senses, which is the irony:  it’s always the case that the effects look more realistic, but every time character and story have to be compromised for the sake of the conceit of the film — which means the verisimilitude of the characters and their motivations are sacrificed).

To those people I say, first, “Fie!”, and second, “Go see The Woman in Black.”  Not only is this a very successful play, and a very eerie play, it is a completely non-realistic play.  The story is essentially the same as the movie (minus the part about the Woman in Black collecting the souls of dead children after forcing them to commit suicide; children do die after she appears, but usually in some manner of explicable accident), except it’s presented as such:

Arthur Kipps has hired an actor to create a play of his story, because he needs to tell it and doesn’t know how else to do it.  The Actor plays Kipps in the story, while Kipps plays all the other roles.  That’s it — there are two actors in the play.  There is no set except for the nursery, and the sense of the moors, of being in a car or on a coach, or haunted by the terrifying spectre of a dead woman, is all done with sound effects.  (Except for the Woman in Black herself, who does appear, but is not credited in the program, on the website for the play, or even in THE WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE about the play.)

So, this is plainly non-realist, and it works great.  Among other things, it takes the pressure off of the director to create realistic-looking horror effects.  And, with that pressure gone, the play is free to devote more time to slowly unravelling the story and raising the stakes in terms of eeriness.  And now we’ve got a whole play for Kipps to excavate the fairly tragic story of Jennet Humfreys (the Woman in Black), lending the whole thing a much stronger story:  the play is basically about one thing, and even the kind of peculiar two-person arrangement serves that.  It is about figuring out the story of the Woman in Black:  it is about Kipps figuring it out in Yorkshire, and it is about the actor and Kipps figuring it out in the present.

And (here I’m going to spoil the play for you, too, shut up) what we further find out is this:  the Woman in Black appears throughout the play, scaring the bejeezus out of Kipps in the play-within-a-play (there are jump scares here, too, but somehow I feel they are more cleverly arranged — one part I remember quite distinctly is set up such that everyone in the audience screamed when Kipps reached for the doorknob to the nursery and suddenly!…nothing happened).  At first we think she is an actress for the play-within-a-play, but at the end we discover that she is the actual ghost, drawn forth by Kipps trying to tell her story, and now she’s going to kill the actor’s child (and, by extension, maybe all of ours).

This reversal that calls attention to the artificiality of the play-within-a-play is something I think is interesting, I don’t know if there’s a name for it.  It seems to me to be a way to destroy the fourth wall without actually talking to the audience:  by breaking down the notion of the clear demarcation between “fantasy” (the play-within-a-play) and “reality” (the context for that play), it calls attention to the fact that the “reality” is actually still a fantasy:  and so we’ve got one fantasy stacked up on top of the next, and the implication of fundamentally permeable boundaries between the events onstage and the events in the theater.

Incidentally, I think this is part of what makes horror able to work as a play:  when it’s done right, the inescapable sense of presence is much superior to what you can manage in a movie, which necessarily can’t call attention to its artificiality in a way that includes the audience (Wes Craven tried with New Nightmare, but the problem with it was that the movie screen still creates an impenetrable boundary between audience and actors).

Over all, The Woman in Black movie is hurt by the fact that, unlike The Woman in Black play, it’s got money.  Fancy sets and special effects, all of which make it easy to startle people without requiring the director or writer to really puzzle out the mechanics of the story that lead to the eeriness which makes for a good ghost story:  the play, for instance, only has one room that’s an actual set.  Everything else is ad-hoc props or projections on a scrim, or sound effects.  What that means is that since the play only has one room to work with, it must think of interesting things to do with it.  The room in the play is revealed slowly, and look what a play can do that a movie can’t do (or: can’t do as easily):

We don’t see the inside of the nursery in the movie until about halfway through, but the movie has a whole HOUSE, that we can and have seen, that is filled with rooms which we don’t see inside.  But virtue of its existence, it implies its many more secret rooms.  But the play has only got the one room.  We don’t see inside until halfway through, but that one room is there the whole time — dark and filled with strange shapes — looming over the entire story.  The nursery, rather than being a set piece where a set decorator has gone to some time and expense to just find the creepiest fucking Victorian-era dancing monkey toys they could find, is an actual inescapable element of the story.

The long and short of it is that The Woman in Black, the movie, is a pretty good movie to take your girlfriend to if you are both sixteen and want to get your heart rates up so that you can make out later.  It is not a great movie if you are interested in ideas or story, but it is a pretty great movie if you want to see an excellent example of the Tyranny of Verisimilitude.

  1. Moff says:

    Well, now I’d like to see the play, but that would cost way more than seeing the movie.

    Some review this is.

  2. braak says:

    Well, maybe someday someone will perform it up where you live. In Canada, or whatever.

  3. Jim Stafford says:

    Looking forward to the play but I’ll give the film a miss.

    Horror not working on stage is a myth, it’s actually far more effective then film when done well. ‘Ghost Stories’ was a stunning example ( ). Incredibly effective. If being in a dark movie theatre makes a film scarier than TV, and 3D enhances the scares on screen, then what could be creepier than watching actual things jump out of the actual darkness, whilst sat in a Victorian playhouse. They also go for the 4th wall breaking, pulling the audience into the situation. Genius.

  4. mugasofer says:

    “This reversal that calls attention to the artificiality of the play-within-a-play is something I think is interesting, I don’t know if there’s a name for it. It seems to me to be a way to destroy the fourth wall without actually talking to the audience: by breaking down the notion of the clear demarcation between “fantasy” (the play-within-a-play) and “reality” (the context for that play), it calls attention to the fact that the “reality” is actually still a fantasy: and so we’ve got one fantasy stacked up on top of the next, and the implication of fundamentally permeable boundaries between the events onstage and the events in the theater.”

    Of course! This is why Slenderman* suddenly exploded as an internet … thing. It’s an opportunity inherent in the medium of online videos, that wasn’t exploitable in TV or film. So it was just sort of waiting for someone to tap into it.

    *(which is fundamentally a ghost/demon/spirit, even if he’s technically corporeal.)

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