It’s not hard to scare me. Give me a haunted house, a graveyard and a black-clad figure loitering in the middle-distance, and I am jelly. The 1989 TV film of The Woman in Black made me scared to go to bed. The theatre version gave me goose-pimples. In fact, here is the first part of a two-part list of some of the films that freaked me out. And yet the 2012 version of The Woman in Black left me completely unscared, unscarred, unafraid. But how can this be? What went wrong?
Let me get this out of the way: I’m glad the film has done well, for Hammer’s sake, and the same way I’m glad when any spooky film or book does well, thus contradicting my literary agent when in 2005 he told me there was no market for horror. (Or maybe he only said that because he couldn’t sell my latest horror novel. Who knows?) And I’m always pleased to see ghost stories on screen, as opposed to films about people being tortured to death or suffering horrible ordeals at the hands of home invaders.
Having said that, I don’t think this latest version of The Woman in Black – unlike Susan Hill’s book, Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation, or Stephen Mallatratt’s stage version – was a serious ghost story at all. Given Daniel Radcliffe’s presence, it was almost certainly aimed at the young audiences that made hits out of the Harry Potter films. Being aimed at adolescents is not, in itself, a hindrance to the attainment of serious scariness – the original The Vanishing, may I remind you, was a 12 certificate. But it was as though the film-makers, while showing signs of intelligence and an evident familiarity with the genre, had relinquished the attempt to be truly frightening and had settled instead on a British version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, complete with manufactured boo! moments.
But why? Surely today’s adolescents have as much right to be scared out of their socks as I had, growing up in the 1960s, when TV screenings of Night of the Demon, The Innocents and The Haunting didn’t just leave me a gibbering wreck, but left me with a lifelong love of ghost stories and horror movies.
Here are some of the places where I think it went wrong:
1) POINT OF VIEW
To begin with, the audience sees events through the eyes of Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, the character whose viewpoint we shared all the way through the 1989 telefilm. But at crucial junctures, the point of view shifts to that of Daily (Ciarán Hinds), or – even more damagingly – to that of the ghost itself. Thus all of a sudden we are watching Kipps from the ghost’s vantage point, the same way the Haddonfield teenagers in Halloween are spied on by psychokiller Michael Myers. Or maybe, like Hill House in The Haunting, “whatever walked there walked alone” since it doesn’t seem to make any difference whether or not Kipps is aware of it.
This use of the ghost’s point of view suggests, to me, that director James Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman haven’t fully understood the use of first person viewpoint in the movies, the unspoken contract between film and audience that what you are watching, while it isn’t necessarily strict subjective camerawork (like, for example, Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake), is nevertheless the point of view of the central character. The best example I can think of is that of Chinatown, a story which is entirely told from the point of view of Jack Nicholson’s character, but probably the best ghostly example is that of Miss Giddens in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, to the extent where you actually start to question whether the ghosts are real, or all in her mind. Which doesn’t make them any less frightening.
There are many instances, of course, where multiple viewpoints work, both in the movies and in novels. But by putting us in the shoes of the ghost in certain moments in The Woman in Black, we are forcibly distanced from Kipps’ character. Maybe it’s subconscious on our parts, but we no longer trust his viewpoint, not because it’s unreliable, but because there’s no guarantee the viewpoint won’t shift again – and not through any apparent design of the film-makers. It’s simply sloppiness. Our mental link to the protagonist has been irretrievably broken.
2) MORE MEANS LESS
One woman in black is scary. One woman in black plus an entire army of zombie children = a lot less scary. And having more than one ghost inevitably muddies the waters. What do they want? Is it the same thing that she wants? Are they vengeful too, and also to be feared? Or simply unquiet souls, yearning to be laid to rest? Do they exist on the same astral plane as her? Do they ever bump into each other? Can she still make them do what she wants, even after death? With so many tragic deaths and enough ghosts to populate a small town, surely a few older people would have come back as ghosts as well? So many questions, so few answers.
If you’re going to have more than one ghost, you had damn well better work out your Rules of Haunting, otherwise it just gets silly. You don’t have to tell everyone what the Rules are. But they need to exist. Otherwise, as the French say, it’s n’importe quoi.
3) TICK OFF THE REFERENCES
Of course, this is where Watkins and Goldman show their genre nous, and, to be fair, few among their target audience will be familiar with the films they have ripped off to which they have paid homage. But would it have hurt them to have tried to establish their own visual tropes instead of borrowing ideas and images from, for example, The Descent, The House on Haunted Hill, Black Sabbath, The Haunting, Profondo Rosso, The Innocents, Lady in White, Suicide Club, Ringu etc etc? On the plus side, I guess one could say that at least they’ve ripped off paid homage to the best.
4) TOO MUCH EDITING
Aaagh the Woman in Black is advancing down the upstairs landing towards Kipps, and it’s scary… Actually, no it’s not, because the scene has been edited to bits. There she is, and here’s another camera angle, and here’s a shot of something else, and… Overediting is the enemy of fear. You have to trust the audience here – let them stare at a long unblinking take, even if nothing is happening in it, because their own imaginations will supply all the missing elements themselves. Exhibit Number One in this regard is Paranomal Activity and its sequels, in which rowdy popcorn-munching audiences will happily gaze at nothing happening, with no change of camera angle, for minutes on end. There doesn’t even have to be anyone within the frame. Because, at any second, something might happen, and someone – or something – could intrude.
And make up your mind. Either we’re staring at the same thing Kipps is staring at. Or we’re staring at Kipps staring at it (this is not the same thing as subjective camerawork, by the way, we’re still participating in the Kipps experience) and to chop continuously between the two only dilutes the effect. There are few things scarier than watching the fear on someone’s face, uninterrupted. Asian film-makers are particularly adept at the long take in which the horrible vision is withheld till the last possible moment; there’s a choice example of this in Memories, Kim Jee-Woon’s segment from Three Extremes II, in which we see a man staring at something, and the expression on his face makes us not at all eager to see what he’s looking at.
ETA: 5) ALL OVER THE PLACE
There’s a reason why the haunted house is such a cliché. Paranormal phenomena in the classic spooky films are traditionally tied to a specific place or building (The Uninvited, The Innocents, The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House, The Others, The Stone Tape et al). As the characters explore the rooms, attics, basements and grounds, so do we. It’s the location which primarily generates atmosphere and tension, and provides a frame for whatever supernatural shenanigans will occur. And our increasing familiarity with the layout, instead of making us comfortable, only augments our sense of unease.
It is vitally important, then, that we believe in the place. Most film productions are obliged to mix and match their locations, for either practical or budgetary reasons, by shooting (for example) a doorway in one town, a view from the window in another place, and the interior in a studio. Ideally, production design, directing and editing will conspire to make audiences believe that all these different components are parts of the same location.
But The Woman in Black skips around willy-nilly. One minute we’re in a village in the hilly Yorkshire Dales, featuring a very specific sort of rural English architecture, the next we’re by the sea, crossing flat Essex marshland (which is supposed to be adjacent to the village), the next we’re all aboard the historic Bluebell Railway in Sussex. None of these landscapes match up. Most damagingly of all, the building chosen to represent Eel Marsh House (Cotterstock Hall in Northamptonshire) is never convincingly on the edge of the marshes, and one becomes all too aware of the camera trying to hide this fact. I should add that I don’t set out to spot such inconsistencies while I’m watching a film, so if they leap off the screen and slap me in the face it usually means that something has gone horribly wrong.
It is essential for the story that we believe Eel Marsh House is indeed located on the edge of the marshes, but I kept feeling I was being manipulated towards that belief, and not very successfully. Where is the establishing shot in which we are made aware of the house’s placement in relation to the marshes? I don’t think there is one. (I’ve only seen the film once, so if I’m wrong, and there is such an establishing shot, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments.) Thus the film sacrifices, for me, one of the aces up the sleeve of any ghost story – the power of the location.
And there you have it. If you want to know what I think is scary, have a look at my blog posts Scary Bits Part 1 and Scary Bits Part 2, both of which are full of spoilers. Here’s a piece about ghosts I wrote last year for the Guardian‘s film pages. Here’s another piece I wrote for the Guardian on why women make the scariest ghosts.
And here’s STIFF LIPS, a ghost story I wrote that was published by Pan Macmillan back in 1996, now available for download as an ebook. (Click on the pic to be taken to amazon.) It’s about a house in Notting Hill which is haunted by a 1960s rock band called The Drunken Boats. Free samples available! Feel free to give it a bad review!
And here is my second ghost story: THE EX (reissued in 2019 by Brooligan Press), which is about a haunted house and at least one haunted person, and which moves between King’s Cross, Notting Hill, East Anglia and Venice, all linked by their canals. (Click on the pic to be taken to amazon.)