‘Woman in Black’ shivers spines but only grazes stomachs

Bill Thomas, Arts & Entertainment Editor

From the 1950s to the late 1970s, Hammer Film Productions was one the premier names in horror cinema. Sadly, changing audience tastes eventually resulted in the demise of the studio. As the company’s psychological thrillers, pulpy vampire adventures and stylish haunted-house yarns went the way of the dodo, replaced with a gut-pile of hack ‘n’ slash bloodbaths, the iconic House of Hammer closed its doors.

For upwards of three decades, those doors remained shut. Then, in 2007, Hammer suddenly returned out of the blue, under new management. Still in the process of lumbering slowly back to life even now, the company recently began picking up steam with the artistic success of such projects as Matt Reeves’ remake of “Let the Right One In” (retitled “Let Me In”) and David Keating’s “The Wake Wood.”

With “The Woman in Black,” a new adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, Hammer officially revisits the distinctly British breed of gothic horror that defined so much of its early classic output.

Seemingly trying to erase the public perception of him as “that Harry Potter kid,” Daniel Radcliffe stars as Arthur, a single father living in Edwardian England. Traveling to the secluded Eel Marsh House to consolidate the private papers of the recently deceased lady of the manor, Arthur soon finds himself engulfed in a swelling sea of superstition and tragedy.

Looming over it all is a malevolent wraith, the titular “woman in black,” whose appearance always serves as an omen for the impending death of a child. With his own son potentially in danger, Arthur becomes determined to unearth the secret of the shadowy specter and rid Eel Marsh of her curse once and for all.

Though Radcliffe is too boyish for the role, he is admirably earnest (at times overly so). The characters are all well-drawn, and, while the second act stretches itself fatally thin, the pacing is methodical, with more emphasis on emotion and ambiance than unwarranted action.

“Eden Lake” director James Watkins offers a welcome respite from recent horror duds like the tried-too-hard “Paranormal Activity 3” and the didn’t-try-hard-enough “The Devil Inside.” The film’s brooding visuals permeate it with an ominous, ever-present atmosphere of sorrow and dread, sending shivers up your spine even when “Kick-Ass” screenwriter Jane Goldman’s script tests your patience with an obnoxious overabundance of cheap jump-scares as well as a slightly sappy finish.

Movie-goers hungry for a good get-under-your-skin chiller should find “The Woman in Black” a tasty treat indeed. More a stomach-grazing spook-show, though, than a real-deal meal.

3.5 stars out of 5