“THE WOMAN IN BLACK” My rating: B- (Opening wide on Feb. 3)
95 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
“THE INNKEEPERS” My rating: C+ (Opening at the Screenland Crossroads on Feb. 3)
100 minutes | MPAA rating: R
The problem with most ghost movies is that they fall apart in the clutch.
Oh, there are a few, like Robert Wise’s “The Haunting,” that set the hook early and never let you shake it off.
But most movies in the genre end up delivering a few goosebumps and then run aground on the rocks of their own illogical premises.
Two new spookfests have opened simultaneously in Kansas City, one your traditional Victorian haunter, the other a vaguely hip modern interpretation. Oddly enough, in both cases the wandering spirit making life miserable for the living is a wronged woman.
Perhaps the makers of ghost stories have a misogynistic streak. Discuss among yourselves.
The more elaborate of the two productions is “The Woman in Black” starring Daniel Radcliffe (that’s right, Harry Potter) as a widowed lawyer. The time is the turn of the last century (noisy automobiles are beginning to show up even in remote English towns) and our hero, Arthur Kipps, has journeyed to a small coastal burg to settle the estate of a wealthy old woman whose large and largely rundown home sits on an island cut off from the mainland with each high tide.
Arthur is a sad, morose fellow perpetually in mourning for the wife who died in childbirth and left him with a young son back in London. He has his hands full with the locals, who refuse to rent him a room at the local inn, decline to take him out to the island estate, and even try to block roads to prevent access.
The local gentry (Ciaran Hinds), a rationalist with a mad wife (Oscar nominee Janet McTeer) and contempt for the peasants’ superstitions, befriends the young stranger and facilitates his entry to the mouldering mansion.
Writer/director James Watkins obviously had a lot of budget to play around with here, and the old house is a suitably spooky bit of production design. Spookier still are Arthur’s glimpses of a woman. Sometimes she’s spotted in the overgrown yard before the house. Sometimes she’s glimpsed briefly in a reflection.
Rocking chairs rock on their own. Candles are blown out where there is no breeze. Rusty windup toys suddenly come to life. A patch of darkness advances down a hall toward our protagonist.
Just as disturbing are a series of deaths among children in the village. Arthur’s presence seems to have stirred up some long-dormant evil.
Watkins borrows from some very good sources here — “The Innocents” and the aforementioned “The Haunting,” for starters. And “The Woman in Black” reeks of musty, dank atmosphere.
Watkins has done something daring by presenting a central half hour segment of the film with virtually no dialogue. It all takes place as Arthur, alone on the island, explores his surroundings and encounters all manner of unearthly phenomenon. It’s a tasty example of visual storytelling.
Radcliffe is acceptable in the role without in any way being exceptional. Which is rather unfortunate, because for huge chunks of the film he’s giving a solo performance. It needs to be exceptional.
Bottom line: Not a must-see, but good creepy fun.
Ti West‘s “The Innkeepers” is at the other end of the spectrum, a minimalist effort that finds the supernaturally evil co-existing with the run-of-the-mill banal.
It’s the last weekend of business for the venerable Yankee Pedlar Inn in a mid-sized New England burg. Though it appears to have been well maintained, the old hotel is on its last legs.
Only two employees remain, each working 12-hour shifts and sleeping in the hotel as the finals hours tick away.
Luke (Pat Healy) is a thirtysomething dweeb, the kind of guy who can always muster some withering sarcasm but has no sellable talents.
Claire (Sara Paxton) looks to be a decade his junior, a pixie-haired gamin who hasn’t yet discovered how limited her options are.
There are only a couple of guests this final weekend. One is a once-famous TV actress (Kelly McGillis…that’s “Top Gun” Kelly McGillis) now working the psychic fair circuit; the other an old man who wants to sleep in the same room where he honeymooned with his late wife decades earlier.
The Yankee Pedlar is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a woman. Luke claims to have encountered the specter who a century earlier died on the premises. He’s got some recording equipment that he hopes will capture the weeping of the ghost. And he’s got a half-finished web site dedicated to the haunted hotel…although there won’t be much need for it when the bulldozers arrive.
West delivers goosebumps without really showing us anything. The occasional quick shots of a ghostly woman are more cheesy than terrifying. And the film never delivers the big payoff.
But Paxton and Healy are terrific as Mutt-N-Jeff working stiffs who find themselves being sucked ever deeper into weird stuff they don’t understand. Their interplay and the subtleness of the characterizations are the reason to catch this one.
| Robert W. Butler