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‘Woman in Black’ is a crafted horror flick

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, March 2, 2012 7:31 am

So … how ‘bout them Oscars? I was originally planning to do my usual Academy Awards response column this week, but really, what’s the point? I told you that the show would be awful and insulting, and lo and behold I was right — kinda.

Shockingly, the evening was far worse than even I had anticipated, what with Billy Crystal’s sad and cringe-inducing Vaudevillian “humor,” the steady stream of blatantly undeserving winners, and the constant barrage of horrid montage moments (apparently, the idea of “cinema” is best represented by clips from “Forrest Gump” and “Twilight: Eclipse” — whoda thunk?).

When the biggest first-pump moment in an Oscar telecast comes when “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” wins for best film editing, I think the time has come to consider whether or not the Academy Awards still have a rightful place in popular culture at all. Hell, after Sunday night, I wonder if we’ll even have an Oscar show in another 10 years, or if the voters’ boundless stupidity and viewers’ crushing apathy will force this antiquated circus of nonsense to suffer a slow and cruel death.

But whatever — I went seven for eight in predicting the major categories, so I guess that’s something to be pleased about. In any case, this week we move away from the scourge of the Oscars and take shelter with a couple high-quality movies you may have missed in the past few weeks. Next time, we’ll return to new releases with a look at “Project X.” Until then, happy watching.

I was going to skip this one and eventually get around to it on DVD, but my lady friend recently read the Susan Black novel it was based on and, eager to see how the slow-burn suspense of Black’s story translated to film, successfully dragged me to the theater. And in the end, as is so often the case when she drags or guilts me into seeing movies, I was forced to admit the ridiculousness of my biases and concede to her superior movie-choosing skills.

For “The Woman in Black,” based on Black’s old-school gothic ghost story published in 1983, is not merely a moderately interesting genre diversion, as I had assumed. It’s a fully formed, carefully crafted horror movie in the classical Hammer Films sense, bursting with style and atmosphere and an unrelenting sense of dread. I’m left to wonder if there has been a more entertaining or frightening ghost story released in the past decade, but for now I’m coming up blank.

Besides the usual scary story thrills, there are two major points of interest here. One is Daniel Radcliffe, who marks his big-screen breakthrough following the Harry Potter phenomenon and a handful of reportedly impressive stage performances. Here, as a widower who gets far more than he bargained for when he is sent to a cursed and secluded country town to settle an old woman’s estate, Radcliffe gives us a confident performance rife with subtlety, and helps the film become (almost) as much of a character piece as it is an old-fashioned campfire tale.

The other is director James Watkins, who displays an admirable knack for building and maintaining a palpable sense of pit-of-the-stomach dread, from the film’s jarring opening scene to the bold and unexpected conclusion. He has made only one film before this (“Eden Lake,” a survival thriller starring Michael Fassbender that just shot straight to the top of my Netflix queue), but if studio executives have the even slightest shred of foresight, he could be “one of watch.”

Another filmmaker to file under the “one to watch” category could be Jeff Nichols, who wowed critics a few years back with the little-seen “Shotgun Stories” and continues to make a name for himself with last year’s psychological drama “Take Shelter,” now available on DVD and Blu-ray. The film left its mark in the critical community, racking up a host of year-end critics honors, but was completely snubbed by the major awards, perhaps sealing its fate forever. Yet it is my hope that positive word of mouth will result in the film becoming a modest hit nonetheless, because movies this committed and well-acted simply don’t come along very often.

In what could be the most impressive male performance I saw in any movie last year, Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road,” HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) stars as Curtis, a dedicated family man who begins to have apocalyptic visions of a coming storm that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear. He decides to act on these visions and renovate his storm shelter — a financially unf  easible project that puts him at odds with his normally supportive wife (Jessica Chastain, who should have won the supporting actress Oscar for her work here instead of simply being nominated for “The Help”). Matters are further complicated when it is revealed that Curtis has a family history of paranoid schizophrenia, and may be succumbing to mental illness himself.

Ultimately, “Take Shelter” is a film about relationships, and the lengths people will go to in order to maintain the connections they have with their loved ones. In the end, the question of whether Curtis is a prophet or simply insane is more or less irrelevant, as the crux of the matter is the psychological processes that Curtis and his wife go through in dealing with this unusual bit of domestic strife. So if you’re looking for an apocalyptic thriller, skip it. But if tour-de-force acting and on-point writing are more your thing, then missing “Take Shelter” would be absolutely catastrophic.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at



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