A small part of me feels sorry for Daniel Radcliffe (at least as sorry as I can be for someone who, at nearly three years my junior, has already made more money than I will ever see). After starring in the monolithic Harry Potter series for a whole decade, it’s hard to imagine he’ll ever be able to break free from that iconic role. So when trailers began appearing for the new film The Woman in Black, I think everyone’s first thought was, “Hey look! It’s a Harry Potter horror movie.” Coupled with the fact that the trailers were mostly nonsensical and featured the tired cliché of whispering children, I can’t imagine hopes were too high among true horror fans.

Somehow, despite having almost no interest in seeing it, I ended up at a showing last weekend, in a theater packed full of high schoolers (the worst kind of theater). Based on the advertisements and the audience make-up, I expected a stupid, cheap thrill, stylized throwaway for the post-music MTV generation (kind of like Paranormal Activity, which I refuse to accept as a good movie, despite countless arguments to the contrary, though I expect to see some in the comment sections). What I ended up getting instead was a creepy, lingering, and surprisingly inventive throwback to the classic ghost story.

The movie itself is actually a remake, though the source material is thankfully obscure enough that it felt fresh. Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a widowed young lawyer with a four year old son sent to a remote village to take inventory of the final will and documents of a deceased woman in her isolated, assumedly haunted mansion named Eel Marsh (which does not seem like a place any sane person should ever want to live). Cold open aside (which I won’t spoil but will say it’s quite a shocker), the movie seems set to fall into the tired haunted house groove, complete with a village full of wary faces warning their newest visitor to stay away from Eel Marsh.

Thankfully, however, the film is able to play with expectations and wrinkle the formula just enough to keep the story interesting, which for me is essential in any good horror movie. Sure, you can get me with jump scares, but the kind of tension I appreciate is one that comes from a truly suspenseful yarn, and The Woman in Black delivers. You see, the previous owners of the house lost a son in the nearby boggy marshes, swallowed up by the mud never to be seen again. Now, it seems, the village has been cursed with an unnaturally high rate of dead children. As so often is the case in an atmosphere of death, it isn’t long until the superstitious stories start to follow. But, like any good rational 19th century Londoner, Kipps won’t be taken in by such nonsense. He has a job to do. That is until he decides to spend the night alone at Eel Marsh.

I’ll stop my plot summary there, but Woman is able to tie its admittedly simple strands of narrative into a satisfying knot, peppering in enough jump cuts and creepy images to keep you sitting upright while the madness of it all roils in your mind. The back half of the movie reaches some pulse pounding crescendos, and more than once, the film twists and plays with our expectations, all the way up to the ending. And I will say that the whispering children from the trailers do in fact tie heavily to the story.

Overall though, the movie lives and dies by its atmosphere: the paranoid village and the dark, cobwebbed mansion, with the actors mostly around to keep the plot going. But in praise of Radcliffe, I will say that by the end of the movie, to me he was Arthur Kipps, not simply Harry Potter pretending to be someone else. At this stage in the game, that’s high praise, and with enough turns like this one, he may be able to excise the pall of his former fame. It wouldn’t be the first time a young star overcame an iconic character and built a solid career.

The film has already exceeded expectations, raking in $21 million last weekend, though I wonder how long its legs will be, as well as whether the audience it was sold to will appreciate what is essentially a cinematic throwback. But I am hoping (maybe naively) that the success leads to other ventures into the suspenseful horror of yore, rather than the stab-happy slasher-cum-torture-porn throwaways that seemed to dominate for the past decade. At the very least, the movie kicks off 2012’s horror movies with an understated bang.

Overall Grade: B+

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