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The Woman in Lack (of a decent script)

The Woman in Black has been a commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic, outgrossing all other modern British horrors - although the press release announcing this bizarrely compared it with such ‘British’ films as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which was American) and The Others (which was Spanish!). Consequently I’m going to assume you’ve all seen it and take the chance of including some spoilers here. SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! If you haven’t seen TWiB but intend to do so, bye-bye and we’ll see you next month.

      Where to begin? Sadly, the film’s problems are legion, and most can be blamed on Jane Goldman’s script. Daniel Radcliffe does his best in the lead role - and he’s undoubtedly a decent actor - but he’s given very little to do. However the main problem with TWiB is that it’s not at all frightening. It’s a ghost story that’s not in any way spooky, creepy or unnerving. Such scares as are present are all jump-scares: something is either moving around in the background or jumping out at young Mr Potter. Some are meaningless cat-scares, like the crow in the bedroom, and others have already been seen in the trailer.

      Instead of building atmosphere, with lots of shadows and creaky floorboards and suchlike, making audiences nervous about what might be in that house, there is simply a succession of things that shout ‘Boo!’. And every time they shout ‘Boo!’, most of the audience scream. And after they’ve screamed, they laugh. Not a mocking laugh, but the laugh of release one gives after each jolt on a fairground ride. Because that’s what The Woman in Black is: a ghost train, not a ghost story.

      The audience for this film skews very young, for the same reason that the box office has been so substantial. Daniel Radcliffe could have picked a melodrama about Peruvian guinea pig farmers for his first post-Potter role and it would still have scored what Variety calls ‘boffo BO’. In the UK the film managed a 12A certificate (partly through a shockingly hamfisted edit of a momentary appearance by a hanged corpse) and this makes TWiB an extreme example of a modern cinematic phenomenon. This is a film that plays completely differently to critics than it does to ordinary punters. In a preview screening full of journos (and/or executives) it undoubtedly plays as a serious gothic supernatural drama. Those reviewers are there to critically evaluate it and, though they may start at the cat-scares, they will contain their emotions.

      But in the Leicester Odeon and elsewhere, surrounded by schoolkids and Harry Potter fangirls, the film plays to constant laughter and screams of fairground delight. If it had any atmosphere, this would destroy it. But the weak script - which I gather deviates considerably from the source novel, TV adaptation and mega-successful West End play - effectively prevents the build-up of atmosphere anyway through poor narrative structure and an almost complete absence of characterisation.

      A good ghost story is a mystery. Since not everyone becomes a ghost when they die, there must be some reason why a soul has not passed on. In order to provide resolution, someone needs to investigate what the ghost is trying to achieve and why, and somehow enable that to happen so that the haunting will stop. That’s your basic structure for any ghost story. Just a few months before TWiB, there was another British film which got it right. WhileThe Awakening wasn’t perfect (the mid-point revelation about the teacher is too out-of-nowhere and the final explanation is laid on with a trowel) at least it understood how these things work. Something weird was happening at a school, which was being blamed on supernatural activity, and Rebecca Hall was called in to investigate; to find out if there actually was a ghost and if so, what could be done about it.

      The Woman in Black is notable for containing no ambiguity about its supernatural aspects. Apart from Ciarin Hinds’ fiercely rational sceptic Sam Daily, everyone else simply accepts that the ghost exists - includingHarry Potter (sorry, Arthur Kipps). Kipps doesn’t investigate the ghost, he’s just there to sort out the house’s late owner’s papers. We’re never in any doubt that what he sees is real and neither is he, but he seems supremely unperturbed by it all. The poor lad is never called on to express surprise or fear or shock or worry or trepidation. One can imagine that Goldman’s script, where a writer with more imagination might have written ‘SLOWLY, WITH FEAR IN HIS EYES, KIPPS APPROACHES THE DOORWAY, THE CANDLE SHAKING SLIGHTLY IN HIS HAND’ probably just says ‘KIPPS LIGHTS A CANDLE AND WALKS TOWARDS THE DOOR.’

      In order to have a mystery - any sort of mystery - we the audience (and any empathetic characters) need to find out what is ostensibly going on, be puzzled at apparent contradictions, inconsistencies and impossibilities, then eventually discover, ideally through our empathetic characters, the truth. We need to know what is happening before we find out why it is happening. I can’t believe I’m even having to explain this, but The Woman in Black shows that there are people at Hammer Films who just don’t get it (and, given the picture’s box office success, probably don’t care).

      Because here is a film where we find out WHY things are happening quite early on before it’s fully revealed to us WHAT is happening. In an astoundingly bad bit of exposition which screams ‘post-production tinkering’ the story behind the ghost is explained to us in two letters - shown in second-unit close-up, read out by unidentified actresses - which Kipps finds midfilm as part of his general sorting of documents. Then, in the final act, Kipps is convinced (via Mrs Daily’s unexplained channelling of her dead son) that the ghost plans to kill his own little boy who is heading up from London. So he decides to find the lost body of the ghost’s son in the marsh - and now the plot really enters Sillytown.

      The spot where the pony and trap containing the boy and his adopted parents foundered in the marsh (in a flashback) is now marked with a huge cross. At low tide it’s only about five metres from the shore and only about two metres down as Kipps says he can feel it with his feet. So why has no-one recovered it before? Apparently it’s because Daily has something the locals didn’t have at the time - a car. But you know, a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost is not a Land Rover. It has a small engine and smooth tyres with no grip and it is a lot, lot less powerful than, oh I don’t know - a couple of freaking horses! With the trap location known, it would have been very easy to recover vehicle and child’s body the next day. And excuse me but, erm, where precisely is the pony? You know, it’s a PONY and trap. If the child’s body has been preserved over the years then so should the animal’s.

      Either, when the trap was sinking, the couple didn’t save their beloved, adopted son/nephew but did stop to unhitch their equine power unit. Or, while diving into the pitch black marsh, Harry Potter has magically unfastened all the buckles and leather wotsits attaching the dead pony to the trap. In fact, why do they need to raise the trap at all? If Kipps can dive down and attach a rope, why doesn’t he just dive down and bring up the little boy? You know, you watch these films and you think: surely somebody, at some point, must have pointed that out. But either they didn’t, or they did but were ignored. I suspect most of the crew probably spotted it but it’s not their place to tell the writer and director about daft plotholes in the script.

      So the boy’s body is laid out in the nursery, then buried alongside his mother’s skeleton (conveniently interred in the grounds of the house, although I suppose that’s reasonable for a suicide). But here’s the thing: all this effort has no effect whatsoever. The woman in black promptly kills another child. The scene of the little girl calmly immolating herself in the basement is one of the few genuinely horrific moments in the film and the ghost standing among the flames, calmly watching this, is considerably more frightening than any of the bits where she lunges at the camera, screaming.

      And then we have Kipps Jr’s death at the railway station, another scene where common sense stands aside to let illogical convenience through. I don’t want to come across as a railway nerd here but the M does stand for Mike and we all know that the railway gene is carried on the Y chromosome. So: in order for Harry and his kid to get squished by the train (look, I did warn you about SPOILERS up there - you only have yourself to blame) the line has to be a single track with a platform on both sides. Otherwise he could just drag the lad onto the other line. But stations on single track railways normally only have one platform because, well, what would be the point? Then we have to ask where that second train came from. This is a small village station on a branch line and the train that the boy and the nanny got off has just left. I can’t remember if the second train was going in the same or opposite direction but either way makes no sense on a single track branch line. And for that matter, why did the nanny have to buy tickets back to London (apart from the narrative requirement for her to be not watching the boy)? Surely they had returns. This is 1908 (give or take) and there’s no such thing as a Supersaver - you can travel on any train.

      Nerdy railway stuff aside, answer me this: why does the ghost keep on killing even after her son is returned to her skeletal bosom? The answer lies in a single line of dialogue which is almost impossible to hear, without which the ending makes no sense whatsoever. In that nursery scene, just after the screaming ghost hurls herself past Kipps, way down in the sound mix, there is a child’s voice. You can’t hear it in most screenings because an angry ghost has just jumped at the camera so everyone is screaming and laughing. There is a clip on YouTube, naughtily taken from a preview copy, and you can hear it there, but the sound mix is different.

      Here is what the voice says. "You’re not my mummy.” And that, my friends, is the best, most important - and, frankly, scariest - line in the entire film, ineptly and inexplicably hidden in the noisy seconds after a big jump-scare. The killings continue because the ghost will never find peace, because her child, adopted as a baby, doesn’t know her. What would have worked so much better is if, in that nursery scene, the ghost had finally calmed down. No more screaming; her baby is back home. She’s happy, she’s thankful to Kipps. Then, as she approaches the bed, we hear: "You’re not my mummy.” The music stops. The clockwork toys all suddenly stop. Kipps’ face falls as he realises what has gone wrong, that all his efforts in the marsh have come to nothing. And the ghost turns to him and SCREAMS! Then whoosh, she’s off to the village with Kipps and Daily in hot pursuit, agonising over how they have made things, if anything, even worse.

      But it’s no more up to me to tell Hammer how their film could have been better than it is the gaffer or best boy. And given the healthy profits they’re making even before it hits DVD, I really doubt the film-makers would give a clockwork monkey’s. The Woman in Black proves once again the rule of modern cinema: if you can rely on a devoted fan following, your actual movie doesn’t matter.


MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.