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18 July, 2012

DVD Review: Haunted Horror Double-Header: THE WOMAN IN BLACK and THE INNKEEPERS

Title:  Haunted Horror Double-Header:  THE WOMAN IN BLACK and THE INNKEEPERS

Year of Release—Film:  2012 / 2011

Year of Release—DVD:  2012 / 2012

DVD Label:  Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / MPI Media Group

One of the Unimonster’s favorite genres of Horror is the Ghost film—haunted houses, haunted people, ghostly places.  Unfortunately, that genre of late has fallen victim to the so-called “found footage” movie; that species of film inaugurated with the abysmal 1999 movie THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.  Featuring grainy, out-of-focus video which looks as though your Uncle Carl shot it at the family reunion, the found footage movie exploded in popularity following the blockbuster success of 2007’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which grossed more than $107 million on a budget of roughly $15,000.  Cheap to produce, the appeal of such movies to both studio execs and aspiring filmmakers is easy to see, and the Ghost genre is uniquely well-suited to such films.

As a fan of classic Horror, though, I find something lacking in most of these films.  Too often, the reduced cost of production means that scripts which would not have passed muster using the conventional studio process are being made into films, definitely a mixed blessing.  While it’s true that the major studio method of choosing which scripts to produce seems to involve eight men in suits killing anything that smacks of originality, it also manages to weed out the really bad ideas—the ones that really shouldn’t see the light of day, such as QUARANTINE, the thoroughly unnecessary remake of [REC].

That wasn’t always the case, of course—for more than fifty years Hollywood’s best and brightest worked in the genre, bringing us films such as THE HAUNTING, THE INNOCENTS, THE UNINVITED, GHOST STORY, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, and THE CHANGELING—films that delivered both scares and stories, quality horror and quality entertainment.  Recently, however, two Ghost films were released which harken back to those glory days of the ghost film: Ti West’s low-budget thriller THE INNKEEPERS, and the resurrected Hammer Films’ THE WOMAN IN BLACK.

According to the DVD cover, THE INNKEEPERS stars Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, and Kelly McGillis, though the real star of the film is the 121-year-old Yankee Pedlar Inn, in Torrington, Connecticut.  The inn, still a popular destination for tourists, played host to the cast and crew, and served as the primary location for filming.

Paxton and Healy play Claire and Luke, the last two workers at the inn, as it prepares to close its doors for good.  There’s little for them to do, as the hotel is virtually empty, and they spend most of their time playing pranks on each other and investigating the inn’s reputed haunting, by the ghost of a jilted bride named Madeline O’Malley.  O’Malley, so the legend goes, hung herself in her room many years ago, after being left at the altar by her fiancé.  The owner of the hotel, finding her body, hid it in the cellar to avoid the bad publicity.

Luke claims to have encountered the ghost, and Claire is envious of his experiences in the hotel.  They explore the inn, deserted save for a woman and her young son, with recording devices, hoping to capture proof of the haunting.  Into this peaceful, if morbid, setting comes a retired actress, Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who now lectures on spiritualism and alternative healing.  She acts as a catalyst to Claire, inspiring her to seek out the spirits in the house with even more persistence.  In doing so, she realizes that, perhaps, the spirits don’t wish to be found.

The movie proceeds at a staid, lazy pace, something which will no doubt turn off a generation raised on YouTube clips.  For those of us of, say, a more experienced generation, who aren’t conditioned to expect three decapitations and a disembowelment before the opening credits, our patience will be rewarded.  The result is a good ghost story.  Not great, but certainly worth the price of admission—or rental.

The second feature on our double-bill is the movie that brought the words “Hammer Horror” surging back into the forefront of fandom.  The second film adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same title, James Watkins’ THE WOMAN IN BLACK stars Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-HARRY POTTER role, along with Ciarán Hinds and Shaun Dooley.  The story is superbly adapted by screenwriter Jane Goldman, and Watkins crafts an excellent film using what has always been Hammer’s strengths:  Quality acting and creating the perfect period atmosphere.

Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is a London solicitor struggling to overcome the emotional disaster of his wife’s death during childbirth.  He’s raising his young son alone, and while he’s a loving, devoted father, the rest of his life is spiraling downward.  His job performance has declined to the point where he’s been given one last chance to save his career.  A client of his employer’s has recently died, and he has been assigned the task of journeying to her home on Eel Marsh Island to inventory her papers and belongings.  His employer makes it clear—if he fails to complete this charge, his services will no longer be required.

Upon his arrival in the village of Eel Marsh, Kipps is greeted with distrust, suspicion, and outright hostility by the locals.  Only Sam Daily (Hinds, in a superb performance that should be recognized in award season but probably won’t) and his wife Elisabeth show him any kindness and hospitality.  His efforts to carry out his duties out on the island are hampered by factors both geographical and human.  First, the island is more of a high point on the salt water marsh, approachable only by a narrow causeway.  When the tide is in, the causeway is flooded and impassable.  Even this obstacle is made more difficult to overcome by the fact that no local will go anywhere near the island, or the manor house which occupies it.

Shortly after his arrival, Kipps begins seeing a mysterious figure, a woman dressed entirely in black mourning garb.  After each appearance, tragedy strikes the small village, and the reason for the villagers’ hostility becomes apparent.  But, mindful of his employer’s warning, Arthur continues his work at Eel Marsh House.  Soon, he discovers the cause of the troubles, but can he correct the injustice done in time to quiet the vengeful ghost—and save himself?

The cast is excellent, led by Radcliffe and Hinds.  Radcliffe is a bit young for the part of Arthur Kipps, but still manages to pull it off rather neatly; and Ciarán Hinds is by far the best actor in the film.  And the cast can’t help but shine given the overall quality of the production.  It’s as though it were filmed at the old Bray Studios, Hammer’s former home; the atmosphere is pure, vintage Hammer, and I love it.  Anyone who loves classic Horror should have this film in their collection.
So, while summer mega-budget, Super-Hero blockbusters fill the local Cineplexes, remember that there are options out there for those craving a good, old-fashioned, spine-tingle or two.

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