views from the gods

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The Woman in Black (12A) - Hammer films evening
Prince Charles Cinema
14th June 2012


Hammer, like tea, The Queen and football thuggery, is quintessentially British.

The studio is responsible for some of the most groundbreaking, well-loved and memorable horror movies of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Without Universal Studios' monsters pictures, there wouldn't be a US horror scene. Without Hammer, there would be no British horror scene, Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. The studio isn't just a part of our national identity as the Carry On... series, but it's also something deeply personal; alongside US trashfilms and B-Movies, it made me appreciate all things evil.

So when Hammer wanted to promote the release of Woman in Black on DVD with a small do at the Prince Charles Cinema, I wasn't not going to go. For those who don't know, the PCC is a charming, small but perfectly formed picture house just off Leicester Square. They cater for the cult end of the market and do so brilliantly with regular screenings of classics, a delightfully dingy bar and events such as this.

After a couple of free drinks and the goodie bag, we went to the upstairs screen for a short Hammer montage. It was simply 15 minutes of out-of-context scenes for the uninitiated, but represented the best of the studio, even if you did suddenly realise just how bloody loud the sound levelling was in those old films. Personally, this was enjoyable but somewhat of a wasted opportunity. I think I would have rather seen a full 30-minute retrospective documentary.

Following that - and after a few technical snafus - came a Q and A session with President of Hammer, Simon Oakes. An engaging and warm speaker, he obviously had a passion for the genre and defended Hammer's position within it. Most interestingly and rather worryingly, he mentioned that The Woman in Black could become a franchise, with a second film currently in production. Still, he also mentioned that the Saw franchise went on for too long, so I have faith he could show restraint rather than milking the cash cow dry.

The Woman in Black itself is a perfectly fine film. It perhaps does better at being a Hammer film than it does being a great horror film in its own right. The brooding gothic feeling is there, as is the jet-black English humour and frequent sharp-shock Lewton Buses backed up with jarring orchestration.

Jane Goldman, unsurprisingly, has done another brilliant job with her crisp script, managing to pad out Susan Hill's novel very well. As always with Goldman, it's a passion project, and one that pays off. The plot itself is fairly paper-thin, with a lawyer going to a haunted house to sort out the estate of its recently deceased owner. People warn him against it following a number of deaths of children, and there he sees the Woman in Black. There's a whole pop-psychology subplot of him having lost his wife and having to care for his son alone, but thankfully it's not hugely laboured.

Performances all round are tight, with Radcliffe distancing himself from Harry Potter further as lawyer Arthur Kipps. He's sympathetic if not three-dimensional and enjoyable enough to watch wander around in silence for a large part of the film. Although I admit there were times when he was wandering around in the gothic shadows that I expected him to scream "Expelliarmus!" at the ghosties. Maybe that says more about me, though.

One huge problem related to lack of true scares is director James Watkins' insistence on showing you the titular Woman at every available opportunity. The best example of classic psychological horror, Psycho, hints at Mother before the big reveal, rather than showing you outright. The best example of contemporary haunted house filmmaking, Ghostwatch, places the spirit Pipes in the show almost subliminally. This serves to build dread and the threat, making the audience as nervous as the characters. Having constant, zooming close-ups on the Woman not only in "real life" but also in photographs and flashbacks. This simply underemines any spookiness it could have had.

But on the whole, The Woman in Black is an enjoyable throwback to the glory days of the studio. After a few misfires, such as the dreadful web-only series Beyond the Rave, it seems Hammer are now on course to revitalise the British horror industry and I truly hope they succeed.

The Hammer films evening was a one-off event organised by Momentum Pictures and Hammer. The Woman in Black is no longer showing at The Prince Charles Cinema, but was released on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download on 18th June 2012.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)

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