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Atmosphere is essential in a good horror film, but what British director James Watkins seems to have
Bryan Miller

Atmosphere is essential in a good horror film, but what British director James Watkins seems to have made with his second feature is an atmosphere film. Even when it's successful it's unsatisfying and hollow, like reading a play that's all stage direction, and whatever credit you're inclined to give it for not stooping to blood and guts is significantly diminished by the fact that the movie is astonishingly boring.

Daniel Radcliffe, in his first post-Potter role, stars as bereaved lawyer Arthur Kipps. It's a bit of an odd choice as his followup to a major franchise role. It's not as blatant an attempt to break out of the child-star mold as, say, Elizabeth Berkley's embarrassing move from Saved by the Bell to Showgirls or Drew Barrymore's precocious cocaine phase, but it's still a stumble. Dressed in vintage barrister garb, playing a father now widowed for more than three years, he can't help but look a bit like a child playing dressup. On the other hand, the slow, at times largely dialogue-free script gives him a lot of solo screentime and a chance to do a lot of brooding and silent emoting, which actually turns out to be a decent showcase for his talent.

Arthur leaves his son with a nanny for the week to go on a last-ditch assignment to save his job. He's to visit the crumbling estate of the Drablows, a family whose tragic downfall seems to be a precursor to misfortune for the rest of the village. Following an accident that claims the life of their adopted child, the Drablows become tormented by a mysterious figure in black, and each time one of the townspeople sees her, ill fate befalls one of the children in the village.

Determined to settle the estate-- and also maybe more than a little morbidly curious about death and the ghosts of mothers past-- Arthur opts to spend two days and nights alone in the old house, much to the consternation of his new friend (Ciará n Hinds) and the rest of the village, which fears reprisal from the woman in black.

The big question here is: How long can you be entertained by Radcliffe creeping around in the dark while shadowy faces appear behind him and/or rocking chairs start to move of their own accord? If the answer is “For about an hour and thirty-five minutes,” then by all means rush out and immediately buy a ticket to The Woman in Black. If, on the other hand, this sounds like the sort of thing that begins as an ominous setup that quickly fades into dull routine before sinking into almost parodic repetition, then might I suggest you try Chronicle instead?

Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman, working from a 1983 novel by Susan Hill, deserve credit for attempting to make a horror story as much about psychological and emotional torment as things that go bump in the night (or, as is often the case here, the dreary British day), but the film has terribly little to say. It's climax is painfully familiar and uninteresting, and that comes after more than an hour of dour, plodding setup. The film did give me one good scare, but it was a startling sound cue at the end of a long windup, and it jolted me only because the preceding five minutes had almost entirely lulled my eyelids closed and I was on the verge of napping. Pretty indicative.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.