So this is Daniel Radcliffe's first post-Potter film, and the first from the revived Hammer Studios. I was interested by its look, then gratified to learn from reviews that it is what it looks like: a nice, old-fashioned haunted house movie without a lot of gore or [obvious] CGI, just a good amount of eerie creepiness, dark hallways, spooky noises and foggy atmosphere. So let's go!
We open with three little girls playing with dolls. Then they all look up and see something, walk over to the window, and jump out. Then we meet Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, haunted by his wife's death in childbirth. He is sent out to the creepy house in the distant village (this is some time in pre-WWI England) to look through the mountain of papers there and find the final will. He is explicitly told that if he screws it up, he'll be out of a job. He bids goodbye to his young son, who is set to join him in the countryside in two days.
Arriving in the spooky village, he finds that the hotel has no room, despite his Expedia confirmation, all the adults shun him and pull their kids away from him. He pays a guy to take him to Eel Marsh House, who will only take him to the gate and no further. The house is located on an outcropping that is cut off from land during high tide. He goes out, finds the expected huge creepy mansion filled with Victorian-era bric-a-brac, and gets down to work. He starts hearing noises, and explores upstairs, initially finding a little bird fallen out of a nest--like the kids who have fallen to their deaths. Then he looks out the window and sees a strange woman in black lingering on the grounds. When he gets back to town, a young girl has swallowed lye and dies in his arms.
He stays at the house of Ciaran Hinds as Samuel, and meets his slightly crazy wife, who lost a beloved son and now treats these little dogs as though they were children. We're putting together that this town has a habit of losing children. The next night Arthur decides to spend the whole night out at the house, and you're like "Okay, now it's ON," and you would be right, as it is indeed on. Arthur's night at the house is one extended sequence of freak-out after freak-out, one building on the next, until you're wondering where the movie could possibly go after this. Employed along the way is a lot of careful sound design, moving shadows, and clever touches like the reflection of a moving candle in a doll's eye making it look as though its eyes are following him.
While this is happening Arthur pieces together that the owner of the house stole her sister's son, who then died out in the marsh, leaving one angry lady, and now whenever anyone in town see the woman in black, a child dies soon after. And remember, Arthur's own son is on his way to town. The movie finds a way to fill up its last third in an attempt to break the curse, more satisfying scares, and a surprising ending that is also satisfying, and maybe the best thing for everyone, i.e. maybe that's the woman in black's way of saying Thank You. Without giving too much of a hint, you might also pay attention to the woman in white, who has also been forcibly separated from her son. The last shot was a nice little touch that was a particular favorite.
Some reviews--in younger-skewing, hipper and more cynical publications--criticize the movie for its amount of jump scares, accompanied by loud bursts of sound, that its scares are "the easy kind," and that the ending is lame. I say they're being sourpusses. If you're watching an old-fashioned ghost story, you should expect old-fashioned scares, and guess what? They still work. There's nothing that can top the old reliable creepy noise in a big dark house. One does tire of every sudden movement being accompanied by a loud blast of sound, but by the time you're just about over it, they stop. And if you've read any Victorian ghost stories, you know that there are only about five endings one has to choose from. That this story is a homage to the golden period of ghost stories is an act of veneration, not a lack of imagination, and I found the ending here both surprising and a perfect fit. And a tiny bit moving, too.
And you know what else? It's fucking scary. There is very little blood and almost no direct violence, but that doesn't mean it's safe to bring the young ones. This film has scares and atmosphere that gets under your skin, and that night spent in the house reaches a pitch of intensity that gives you what you came for. And it's all done out in a perfect setting that gives back in plenty of eerie, effective visuals, and drapes it all over a solid framework of character history that makes sense and enriches the goings-on. And it's perfectly cast, with Radcliffe using the haunted, mournful quality he brought to the later Potter films to create a new character that makes you forget the massive character hanging over his history. If this is what we can expect from the today's new Hammer Studio, I say bring 'em on.
If you want to see a nice, scary, old-fashioned spook story.