There isn't much of a twist to The Woman in Black's haunted house tale: man goes to a creepy old house runs into an angry ghost and mayhem ensues. That standard horror plot would be fine if the execution were thrilling every scare sending a chill down the spine. But star Daniel Radcliffe's first post-Potter outing has less life than its spectral inhabitants with impressive early 20th century production design sharp cinematography and solid performances barely keeping it breathing. Much like the film's titular spirit The Woman in Black hangs in limbo haunting the quality divide.
Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is barely holding on in life having lost his wife during the birth of their child and struggling to stay employed as a lawyer. To stay afloat Kipps reluctantly takes on the job of settling the legal affairs of a recently deceased widow. Living in her home the you-should-have-known-this-house-was-haunted-by-the-name Eel Marsh House Kipps quickly realizes there's more to the woman's life than he realized unraveling her mysterious connections to a string of child deaths and a ghostly presence in the home. Even with pressure from the townspeople Kipps continues his investigation hoping to right any wrongs he's accidentally caused by putting the violent Woman in Black to rest.
Radcliffe bounces back and forth between the dusty mansion made even more forbidding by the high tides that routinely cut it off from civilization and a town full of wide-eyed psychos who live in fear of the kid-killing Woman in Black. Even after losing his own son Kipps' neighbor Daily (Ciarán Hinds) is convinced the "ghost" is a fairy tales while Daily's wife (Oscar nominee Janet McTeer) finds herself occasionally possessed by her dead son scribbling forbidding message to Arthur about future murders. Arthur wrestles with the two extreme points of view but Woman in Black doesn't spend much time exploring the hardships of a skeptic quickly slipping back into standard horror mode at every opportunity. When they have time to play around with the twisted scenario all three actors are top-notch but rarely are they asked to do anything but gasp and react in a terrified manner.
Director James Watkins (Eden Lake) conjures up some legitimately spooky imagery leaving the space behind Arthur empty or cutting to an object in the room that could potentially come back to haunt our befuddled hero all in an effort to tickle our imaginations. But like so many "jump scare" horror flicks Woman in Black relies heavily on the "Bah-BAAAAAAH" music cues obtrusively orchestrated by composer Marco Beltrami. A rocking chair a swinging door and the reveal of a decomposing zombie ghost lady could work on their own especially in such a well-designed environment as Eel Marsh House but Woman in Black insists on zapping a charge of musical electricity straight into our brain forcing us to shiver in the least graceful way possible.
The script by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass X-Men: First Class) tries to throw back to the slow burn character-first horror films of classic cinema while injecting the sensibilities modern filmmaking. The combination turns Woman in Black into visually appealing dramatically bland ghost story. Radcliffe still has a long career ahead of him as Woman in Black does suggest but this isn't the movie that get people thinking there's life after Potter.
Besides looking absolutely terrifying (never live in a shoddy tudor home—that's where creepy dead-in-the-face ladies lurk), there's another big reason to look forward to The Woman in Black: the movie is Daniel Radcliffe's follow up to a decade worth of Harry Potter films. Filmed before the final installment of the blockbuster fantasy franchise, Woman in Black, an old school period ghost story, may feel like familiar territory for a young actor who's spent a good portion of his life in the otherworldly Hogwarts—but it's anything but a retread. Directed by James Watkins (Eden Lake), the movie is straight up ghoulish horror, and it was the small scale and intimate storytelling that attracted Radlcliffe to the role. Plus, he didn't have to wear glasses.
We sat down with Radcliffe when he was just finishing up his Broadway run in How to Succeed in Business, to talk Woman in Black, his future career and what advice he had for his Broadway successor, Darren Criss!
Deciding on The Woman in Black as his Potter follow up:
When I was dealing with the press for Potter, they were like, ‘You must have been really sad.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but I was reading a script for hopefully another job, like, two hours later.’ I was quite excited as well. I was shown the script in late July of 2010. James Watkins at that point was going to direct. I watched his film Eden Lake. And I met him. And we got on very, very well, and had a similar vision of how we saw the film and what we thought it was about. Rather than just being an out-and-out horror story, it’s character-driven. In theory, it should also be moving, as well as terrifying. We saw an opportunity to make a horror film that was terrifying, but also kind of poignant, and tragic, and sad. Which is not always a combination that you have.
The post-Potter pressure:
One of the main reasons this seemed perfect was because it was a different kind of part. The part was great because it was an older part. I’m playing a father, which is a bit of a leap for some people. I don’t quite understand why. I think we put Arthur’s age at about twenty-four, twenty-five. With a five year-old son. Which is completely conceivable in modern day, and even more so in the 1800s. And so, it was perfect in essence, but it also wasn’t so different that people were going to start saying, ‘Oh, he’s now just trying too hard to separate himself,’ and all that rubbish.
It couldn’t have just been, like, a great part with some really big acting challenges. I want to do a film where people get involved in the film. Not about me! Because that’s not really what it’s about. I’m the main character, but it’s about the film as a whole. And that, for me, is what people will like about this film. They might be going in, thinking, ‘We’re going to see Harry Potter do his new film.’ But ten minutes in, they’re not going to care about any of that, and are going to want to watch the film for what it is?
On his character Arthur:
Arthur is somebody who is completely disconnected. He can’t look into his son’s face without being immediately reminded of the love of his life who died. And at such a young age. So there are such conflicted emotions about his son, and about the world, that he has become very, very detached. Just walking around in that thick kind of fog of depression. Completely disenchanted with the world.
One of my big questions about Arthur was, ‘Why does he stay there? Why does he stay in that house?’ You’d leg it. You’d run. I was talking to James about that very early on, and he said, ‘Here’s a man who has lost his wife. And he goes to a house and starts seeing the ghost of a dead woman.’ And it’s that power of curiosity, which is such a powerful, strong, fundamental human thing, which keeps him there. Wanting to know more and wanting to have some conformation that there is an afterlife, in fact. And that this ghost is real. And this his wife is somewhere else, and somewhere good. In terms of how I prepared for it, I had a few sessions with somebody that James recommended to me. A kind of a coach to talk to me about stillness, and how minimal one can be. Arthur is not going to be a particularly expressive character—particularly, at the beginning of the film. We worked on just trying to, because I’m a very high-energy person, to cut that. Basically, that was the main challenge for me. Not being so bloody hyper all the time.
The challenges of playing a father:
Well, I cheated. Because I got my godson to play my son. We auditioned a load of kids. Many of them were very, very good. But before we did the auditions, I said to James, ‘Look. My godson and I get on really, really well. He’s five years old.’ Well, he was four at the time. ‘Would you audition him?’ Just because playing a father when you are a father is probably quite hard because you’ve still got to establish a relationship with those kids. And you’ve got to be natural with them. I was worried that, given that it was going to be such a short shooting period, that there wouldn’t be any time to establish any kind of a rapport with a kid. So I said to James, ‘Why don’t you audition Misha [Handley]?’ And he came in, and he was just great, and sweet, and looked brilliant on camera. And because there is already that natural chemistry there, he was just more comfortable. So that helped a lot.
Working with director James Watkins:
James is—I hesitate to say this, because I’ve worked with so many great directors—but I think that I learned more about the technical side of filmmaking on The Woman in Black, I think, than I did on any of the Potters. Because I was so much closer to it, and I was involved from the start of the process. On Woman in Black, you just see all of the decisions getting made then and there.
James also has a huge knowledge of the genre. He is a real student of horror. He has the technical and visual side of directing, while also being very, very good with actors, and very specific with what he wants and what he needs to tell the story at certain times. If there’s a line that’s expositional, or making a point that’s already been made, he’s kind of ruthless. ‘Where there is dialogue that we don’t need, we’re not going to have it.’ There’s a good little section of the film where there’s no dialogue. I think it’s the most compelling part of the film, because it’s terrifying.
Advice for Darren Criss and Nick Jonas, who are taking over for him in How to Succeed in Business on Broadway:
I haven’t met either of them yet—I look forward to meeting them. I would never dare to give advice. They’ll find their own thing. I do want to talk to Darren Criss, since he is the guy that’s actually going to be replacing me. There is one joke that I have to give him that I was given by Matthew Broderick, who was given it by Robert Moss. So, every Finch on Broadway have had this one joke, which I quite like the idea of. I’ve become aware of Darren Criss since I knew he was going to be coming into the show. I think he’ll do a great job. I’m slightly disappointed for him that he only gets to do it for three weeks, because I know that it’s gotten to a place after seven months where I’m really, really happy with the show…but it takes a while. Because you’ve got to find where all the nuances and stuff are. It’s hard. But yeah, I think he’ll do a great job. I really do. And you know what? As long as it keeps all my friends employed!
How he learned to dance:
I took private lessons with a guy called Spencer Solomon, who was a guy who danced a lot in London for our director Rob Ashford. I took lessons with him for a year. So when I wasn’t doing Potter, we did nine hours a week. We did three hours on the weekend. And just doing it and doing it and doing it every week, and getting better and better, slowly but surely. We got some of the choreography early last year, so I was able to get a bit of a head start.
What he wants to do next:
I’d love to do Shakespeare. I’d love to do Orton. But what I’d love to do more than anything else is a new play. That’s what I’d love to do. That’s the one really creative process that I’ve not been involved in yet. I’ve never done a new play. People say that’s just an amazing thing to do, because when you’re there, it’s still evolving as you’re doing it, and it’s very exciting.
The Harry Potter star, who plays a young single father in the film, struggled to connect with a number of child actors auditioning for the role of his son, Joseph Kipps, so he bypassed the gruelling process and recruited Misha Handley for the part.
He tells the Associated Press, "It is very hard to create that chemistry with a four-year-old boy, who you have never met before and who is stepping onto a film set going, 'What in the hell is all of this?' That was one of the reasons that I suggested James (Watkins) audition my real-life godson who... He was great and is great in the film."
And Radcliffe insists the talented young toddler might have a blossoming career ahead of him.
He adds, "At the time when we were filming, I was so obsessed with him having a good time and making sure he wasn't cold or wasn't freaking out that I didn't really pay attention to the fact that he is actually quite a good little actor."