THE WOMAN IN BLACK
starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White
screenplay by Jane Goldman
directed by James Watkins
***½/**** | Image A- Sound A Extras B
starring Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, George Riddle
written and directed by Ti West
by Walter Chaw A beautifully-outfitted, brilliantly-designed Victorian jack-in-the-box, James Watkins's The Woman in Black will likely be remembered, if it's remembered at all, as Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter commencement (given that no one saw December Boys). Alas, it squanders a pretty nice, 'Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow' set-up in bumfuck England for a solid hour of crap jumping out of shadows. Popping up from behind bushes is startling, but it isn't art (it's not even clever), and at the end of the day, it's only really entertaining if you or your date is a sixteen-year-old girl. Carrying the Hammer imprint and boasting production design so good that long stretches of the film are devoted to looking at it, the piece only ever honours its legacy and appearance with the brutality with which it handles its dead children and a delirious dinner scene in which a grief-besotted lady (Janet McTeer) treats her little dogs like babies and carves something on her dinner table whilst possessed of a hilarious fit. The rest of it is garbage.
Arthur (Radcliffe) is an estate lawyer, I think, who lost his wife four years previous to the birth of adorable moppet (and real-life Radcliffe godson), Joseph (Misha Handley). His work suffering under the burden of Method Sadness and a drab colour palette, Arthur accepts an assignment to travel out to the coast to a weird little hamlet full of pale children herded behind closed doors and their anxious parents. Meanwhile, lil' Joseph is on his way to visit his beloved dad at work, leading to a cheat of a conclusion that's kind of cool because it doesn't provide a lot of answers...and kind of stupid because it manages to equivocate all the same. It seems that a recent tragedy at the local haunted house has resulted in the appearance of the titular bogey, any sighting of whom results in the grisly death of a village child. We figure out long before the film tells us that the Woman in Black is seeking vengeance on the villagers for the death of her own son, drowned in a marsh, but beyond that the lore is exceedingly murky.
Why, for instance, is the ghost angry at being seen? What's the justification for the final twist when Arthur's solution seems entirely reasonable? Why is the ghost even angry? I thought a lot about Peter Medak's superior The Changeling during The Woman in Black, a film that for all its lapses, presented a ghost story built on atrocity and unbearably frightening, and quiet, moments like a little rubber ball bouncing down some stairs. The Woman in Black teases with the possibility that it'll be as respectful of its audience, but relies instead on shock effects and other obnoxious tricks. It's juvenilia dressed up like Dickens; not quite the departure from the things of childhood for which Radcliffe perhaps would have wished. The urge to yell out "Expellioramus!" as Arthur wanders down a dark hallway is irresistible--not for any glaring deficiency in Radcliffe's performance (however stilted), but because The Woman in Black is very much a child's idea of scary, a child's vision of plausible motivation, and ultimately only a child's conception of mortality. Mommy's in Heaven, I get it; now go find a theatre showing...
The Innkeepers, Ti West's awesome follow-up to his exceptional The House of the Devil, finds adorable, inhaler-adorned, pocket-Reese Witherspoon Claire (Sara Paxton) and her Jeffrey Combs-manqué co-worker Luke (Pat Healey) the titular entry-level hospitality-management types at the mostly-unoccupied, and haunted, Yankee Pedlar Inn. Over the course of their last weekend there and in the pursuit of memorializing local folklore, Claire and Luke set up a webpage touting the inn's supernatural qualities and go about capturing footage with which to occupy bandwidth. Little do they know that there might actually be something clanking about in the attic (or the cellar, as the case may be), and as the Inn gathers a couple of guests--'80s TV mom Leanne (Kelly McGillis) and an old guy (George Riddle) with a very particular room request--things come, as they say, to a head.
The fascination of the film is in trying to puzzle out whether our Innkeepers are just making shit up to amuse each other in manufacturing the story of a woman who's hung herself in the Pedlar over a lost love, or if it matters either way. As with The House of the Devil, West is presenting the case that perception can be reality--that the reason we feel a prickle of unease when we look down a long, dark corridor might point to something in the hardwire, and that haunting and ghosts are conversations about what we ultimately believe and the extent to which what we believe affects our physical selves. The beauty of The Innkeepers is that it offers a conversation about identity and philosophy without requiring that you engage in it. It's conventionally entertaining, in other words, as well as existentially provocative--and the more effective a catalyst for discussion because of it.
Although set in the present day, The Innkeepers is best read as throwback to Eighties flicks like An American Werewolf in London and The Evil Dead, which offered comedic counterpoint to the decade's darker offerings (to which West's The House of the Devil paid homage) while still delivering the goods, in spades, by the end. It's arguably tougher to manage a balance between light working comedy and genuinely effective ghost story (see: Steve Miner's House) than to serve up a straight devil-worship flick. What West demonstrates this time out is a real facility with his actors. He casts McGillis in the same way he cast Dee Wallace Stone in The House of the Devil, as not only a reminder of his roots (and his indebtedness to them), but also a means through which he might resurrect the idea of character actors in ensemble pieces who provide a richness to the text simply by the fact of them. It's what Tarantino does--which is, you'll agree, high praise. Healy and Paxton are natural and easy to like, enough so that when they're placed in peril, what begins as something of a lark succeeds in generating what feels like real stakes. Paxton's early fear-reactions to the picture's jump-scares effectively comment on the nature of jump-scares themselves. By encouraging a laugh-response, they defuse our fatigue with the tactic. They remind of why it used to be so much fun to scare that girl you liked in homeroom. By the time the film gets serious, an aggregate dread has built without our having had much chance to become inured to it--it's generated access, it's defeated all guards.
The real magic of The Innkeepers, though, is that its central characters are the actual ghosts of the piece: twenty-somethings trapped in a nothing job at a nowhere inn, punching a clock, remembering other peoples' childhoods lived through syndicated sitcoms as their own, and ruing the day they dropped out of college. The inability to form the sort of true, sublime connections we claim as our birthright is the engine that runs the sadness of the picture's conclusion. An old guy checks in to memorialize his long-dead honeymoon, and it's that type of love and devotion that Claire and Luke (and the world's most irritating barista) desire, that Luke substitutes with Internet porn and Claire seeks when she tries to express her affection for a bitter old actress's mostly-forgotten television show. It's not an accident that Luke finally declares his feelings for Claire right before the shit goes down for real. The Inkeepers' ghosts are manifestations of the heroes' loneliness and detachment. It's funny, and it's terribly sad, and it owes its stickiness to that thing West understands about horror: that nothing feels colder than the loss of innocence to tedium, routine, and the unbearable mendacity of being. Originally published: February 3, 2012.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Dark Sky shepherds The Innkeepers to Blu-ray in an organic 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. The film was shot in Super35 and retains its cinematic qualities in the HiDef realm--chiefly grain, the crisp coat of which coalesces into electronic noise with blessed infrequency. Blacks are deep, rich, and often all-consuming, but the image proves capable of rendering the most crepuscular activity. Detail is pleasingly glassy throughout and the carefully coordinated colours look photochemical, for lack of a better word. The disc opens with a notice that its 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack should be played loud and I obliged, delighting in every jolt but more importantly feeling the dread almost subaurally built into the mix in the pit of my stomach and the base of my brain. Voices are occasionally a bit sharp yet never shrill, and the lossless encode rewards the care that was put into recreating the tonal properties of audio recorded with a shotgun mike as it sounds through a pair of headphones.
Extras begin with a short but redolent behind-the-scenes featurette (7 mins., HD) in which cast and crew--guests of the same hotel they're shooting in--bond over their dogs (we infer that the Yankee Pedlar does not have no-pets policy) and the material, of course. Gracing the feature are two charming commentaries, the first with writer-director Ti West, producer Peter Phok, and second-unit director/sound designer Graham Reznick (they're eventually joined by Glass Eye Pix guru Larry Fessenden), the second with actors Sara Paxton and Pat Healy joining the returning West. Both tracks perpetuate and consolidate the production lore that circulated at the time of The Innkeepers' release--West's history with the Yankee Pedlar, the Kelly McGillis Skype call, the revelation of Paxton's dorkiness, etc.--but the discussion in each case dilates to include a gamut of topics, from unconscious influences (no stranger to ghosts, Healy found his performance haunted by too many viewings of Fargoand Pee-Wee's Big Adventure) to Fessenden's cameo (maddeningly offscreen).
It's a real geek draw to hear Reznick talk about layering silence on top of silence, or slowing down a song to create a droning effect, and Paxton confirms her adorability when she's so inclined to speak. (She shrieks, for real and again, at the cheap scare in the opening scene.) Akin to watching The Innkeeperswith the lights on, these yakkers succeed in demystifying the movie without desensitizing the viewer to it, no mean feat; there's real movie love here, though I get the impression they'd all be happy to never see the inside of the Yankee Pedlar again. The Innkeepers' theatrical trailer (HD) rounds out the platter, while trailers for Cold Sweat, Stakeland, and Wakewood cue up on startup. Originally published: April 23, 2012.