An old-fashioned Gothic chiller, "The Woman in Black" marks Daniel Radcliffe's first major movie project after his 11 years and eight films as Harry Potter. There's some logic to the choice: It signals that the now-adult actor has outgrown his boy-wizard role, though it also sticks to PG-13-level frights that won't traumatize his tween-age admirers.
What it doesn't do is give Radcliffe any chance to act. He's straitjacketed as Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer living in turn-of-the-20th-century London who cuts such a stiff, morose figure that his son, Joseph (Misha Handley), draws him with a frowny mouth. "That's what your face looks like," he says, and indeed it does, for the entire film.
Equally monotonous is the remote, fog-enshrouded village Kipps will soon visit. It turns out the local children are frequently murdered by a ghost dwelling in the decrepit Eel Marsh House, but that's precisely where Kipps is headed to arrange the affairs of a recently deceased woman, and no amount of howling noises and self-rocking chairs will stop him. A new friend, Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds), pooh-poohs all the superstition, even though his wife (Janet McTeer) sometimes seems to channel their dead son.
More of those two fine actors would have been nice, but "The Woman in Black," based on Susan Hill's 1983 novel, spends nearly all its time following Kipps, alone, through candlelit hallways and musty nurseries. James Watkins, the director, scores a few jump-worthy scares, but Radcliffe's mild reaction -- vague concern mixed with slight dismay -- consistently lowers the voltage. "The Woman in Black" seems intended as a star vehicle for the onetime wizard, but Voldemort himself couldn't have done a better job of squashing his magic.
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE A disappointing post-Potter debut from Radcliffe, barely breathing in this musty, creaky chiller
Back story: Why doesn't he flee in terror?
It's bad enough you have to stay in this creepy mansion, with creaky floorboards, cobwebs, shadows. But if you see one of those "see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil" monkey statues? RUN!
Of course, like a good horror film hero, Daniel Radcliffe's Arthur Kipps doesn't.
"The Woman in Black" appealed to Radcliffe because "there are so many moments where you go, 'What are you doing? Leave!' " he says, laughing
In fact, it's the first question Radcliffe asked director James Watkins. Why does his character stay?
"James gave this fantastic answer," says Radcliffe. "Here's a man who lost his wife, goes to this house and thinks he sees a ghost. He has to stay -- to find any kind of confirmation that it IS a ghost -- that there IS an afterlife, that his wife still exists, somewhere, and that he'll one day be with her again. It's a film of what happens to us if we can't move on from loss."
-- JOSEPH V. AMODIO