By Michael Phillips 2015-02-20

By Michael Phillips

Tribune Newspapers Critic

3 stars

Much as I like the "Paranormal Activity" pictures for their unfashionable minimalism and quaintly Victorian lack of gore, it's nice to get back to something like "The Woman in Black" -- not authentic Victoriana, exactly (Susan Hill's novel was published in 1983), and certainly not afraid of a little muck and blood, but fully invested in the spirit and spirits of that era. The film, a handsome nerve-jangler co-produced under the storied Hammer horror banner, amps up the scares without turning them into something completely stupid. Success!

Harry Potter finally behind him, Daniel Radcliffe has chosen a different sort of supernatural fantasy to launch his film career as an adult. In the 1920s, a London solicitor named Arthur Kipps is sent north to a grim, moist residence known as Eel Marsh House in order to settle the affairs of its recently deceased owner.

Years earlier the recluse, Alice Drablow, lost her little boy in a drowning accident in the nearby marsh. His cries for help can be heard, still. With the help of a kindly but not entirely forthcoming local landowner (Ciaran Hinds) and his grieving wife (Janet McTeer), Kipps learns the truth of the village of Crythin Gifford, having to do with a startling fatality rate for its young people and the title specter, whom Kipps spies in suitably eerie locations.

"The Woman in Black" is a highly known multimedia quantity in England. The stage version has run for decades in London and has gotten around all over the world. A 1989 British TV adaptation scored with the public, rewriting Hill's storyline substantially. The new film, written by Jane Goldman and directed by "Eden Lake's" James Watkins, revises a fair bit as well, and effectively.

In slightly overstuffed fashion Goldman and Watkins increase substantially the number of deadly incidents and near-death experiences, opening with a triple-suicide prologue and keeping the crises mounting throughout. Unlike the callow, untested Kipps of the novel and previous versions, Radcliffe's character comes pre-haunted this time, having already lost his wife (she dies while giving birth to their son) and in danger of losing his job. These changes give Radcliffe less to do in terms of change-ups, but large, thickly atmospheric sections of "The Woman in Black" are nearly dialogue-free and all the better for it.

The work Radcliffe does here is primarily reactive. It's also quite good. I'd say he's on his way as a post-Potter entity, and "The Woman in Black" deserves a stateside audience. I only wish Watkins had done without the "WHUUNNNGGGG!!!!" sound effects whenever somebody or something suddenly appears in frame, further racking the nerves of our ectoplasmically beset hero.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and violence/disturbing images).

Running time: 1:36.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Arthur Kipps); Ciaran Hinds (Daily); Janet McTeer (Mrs. Daily).

Credits: Directed by James Watkins; written by Jane Goldman, based on the novel by Susan Hill; produced by Brian Oliver, Richard Jackson and Simon Oakes. A CBS Films release.

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