I mostly enjoyed Hammer's Woman In Black, which did pretty good business at the box office this weekend. It was a very old fashioned spook story with a heaping helping of modern day jolt scares that often worked. More than that it was evocatively photographed, and while the lead performance by Daniel Radcliffe was sort of one note (watery eyed), he successfully banished Harry Potter from my brain for 90 minutes.
What I really liked was the film's themes of science versus superstition; set at the turn of the 20th century, the film has the old world of moors and ghosts being confronted by a new world of rationality and motorcars. Radcliffe plays a London lawyer whose beliefs in a rational world have been tested by the death of his wife, and when he gets to a small town cursed by a ghost, he gives in to the side of spiritualism. But it isn't that easy! And this is where spoilers begin.
The ending is almost really great because it successfully continues the modern vs old-fashioned theme; while Radcliffe believes in spooks, he tries to apply his rational mind to dealing with them. He knows that the Woman in Black, who is killing children in the nearby town every time she is sighted, is angry because her son was taken from her and then he drowned in the local bog, with his body never found. So the lawyer assumes that should he find the body (something only possible thanks to Ciarán Hinds, a local skeptic, owning a newfangled car), he'll put her to rest. For our hero there's a real ticking clock here - his own son is on a train up from London, and he's afraid that the four year old boy will be the Woman in Black's next victim.
But it turns out that the plan doesn't work. The supernatural doesn't abide by your laws or reasoning, and at the last moment the Woman in Black tempts Radcliffe's son into the path of an oncoming train. Our hero tries to save the boy, but both get splattered (which is also a nice bit of metaphor, as the oncoming train is a symbol for the unstoppable march of progress). The film actually deals with this well, giving us a fake out where we think maybe the two survived, but then we realize they're on "The Other Side."
Here's where the film shoots itself in the foot. This ending is fine. I have heard some complain that nothing is resolved, but that's the nature of these sorts of stories. The people who try to mess with forces of the beyond are foolish and get punished. I don't mind that the Woman in Black continues haunting. I like that Radcliffe and his son bite it. But the film doesn't end there - it actually follows Radcliffe and his son in the afterlife, where they're greeted by the dead wife. And as a family they all walk off into the mists of heaven, happily ever after.
I assume that this ending - which I understand is not the same as the novel on which the film is based - was put in to give the film a 'happy' ending. But it sucks. It's over the top, and it's treacly. There's a better ending just waiting to happen, and this is how it would have went:
In the film Ciarán Hinds is at the train station when the accident occurs. He looks through the windows of the passing train after it has smashed the father and son, and on the other platform he sees the Woman in Black and the spirits of all the children she has taken, including his own son, Nicholas. A better ending would have had Hinds seeing that same display, but with Radcliffe and his son among the dead. That would have been spooky, unsettling and delightfully hopeless.
Of course the movie made a great $21,000,000 this weekend, so what do I know. Audiences tend to like happy, schmaltzy endings - look at how many people still like the Lost finale. But I think that Woman In Black misses an opportunity to have a strong gut punch of a finale in favor of some audience coddling.
That said, how can you hate any movie that has such a stupidly on the nose final image? It's kind of hilarious.