By Kurt Jensen
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Reputed to be one of the most frightening ghost stories ever written, Susan Hill’s 1983 novel "The Woman in Black" must certainly count as one of the sturdiest: It has been adapted both for British radio and U.K. television, while the 22-year-long — and still ongoing — run of its London stage version makes that property one of the longest-lived nonmusicals in West End history.
As penned for the big screen by Jane Goldman, directed by James Watkins — and with Daniel Radcliffe headlining as barrister Arthur Kipps — the latest iteration of "The Woman in Black" (CBS) aims for a classic horror feel.
And well it might. Hill’s premise, after all, offers us a remote mansion haunted by a malevolent, avenging specter.
While we’re second to none in our appreciation of Gothic chillfests in which spooky creatures pop into the frame, peer out of windows or — better still — are seen in shadowy form down a hallway, this entry has a queasy and troubling feature that renders it unsettling in all the wrong ways. Not only do the proceedings include a high body count, the casualties in question are children lured to suicide by the ghost of the title.
Film being such a literal medium, one image of this kind would be problematic enough. Here they go on multiplying right up to the end.
Jennet (Liz White), the ghost of the title, doesn’t kill anyone directly — she entrances them to their deaths. Her motive? Deemed mentally ill in life, Jennet had her son taken away from her to be raised by another couple. He later drowned in the body of water from which our eerie manse, Eel Marsh House, takes its uninviting name.
Ramping up the pathos, Kipps is shown to be a grieving widower with a 4-year-old son (Misha Handley). And he’s in trouble: Successfully settling the affairs of Eel Marsh House represents Kipps’ one chance to hang onto his job.
But with her rage reaching out from beyond the grave, Jennet, it seems, will keep on killing the children of the nearby Yorkshire village unless someone finds a way to appease her.
The fearless Kipps — one does think of Harry Potter here — finds help from Daily (Ciaran Hinds), a villager who is himself in mourning. Daily possesses religious faith of a sort, telling Kipps, "When we die, we go up there. We don’t stay down here."
In that connection, some Catholic imagery — such as Daily blessing himself and the use of a rosary — has been tossed in. But not, it would appear, for any deeper purpose than added visual effect.
The film contains numerous scenes of suicide by children and occasional gore. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.