A straightforward, old-fashioned haunted-house story has become almost a novelty in our time.
Demons are another story. We've had no shortage of exorcism films; demonic possession is practically old hat. Zombies are everywhere, and vampires are still riding high. We're chock-a-block with the undead, but we've almost forgotten the other half of the postmortem horror equation: the unquiet spirit, and all that goes with it. The ramshackle house that no one dares stay in overnight; a reflection or glimpse in a window of a face where there can be no face; doors that open and close by themselves; bodies not properly buried in sacred ground. Even The Sixth Sense and The Others (spoilers!) were unorthodox ghost stories, told, in a sense, the wrong way around, from the spectral point of view.
Perhaps it's partly because we aren't quite sure what a ghost actually does. As C. S. Lewis noted in The Problem of Pain, "No one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is uncanny rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it induces may be called dread." Dread is more difficult to manufacture than a visceral reaction to something with arms and teeth that can grab and bite and leave a trail of potentially R-rated blood and gore in its wake. Anyway, with a ghost, the brave and optimistic may always hope to find a way of placating it, of discovering the secret of its anger and helping it achieve peace and move on. No one ever placated a zombie or a vampire.
The Woman in Black, based on the eponymous 1983 novel by Susan Hill (previously adapted as a long-running stage play and a TV movie), is as traditional a ghost story as one could wish. Its very clichés have become fresh. It has atmosphere to burn, with splendid locations and production design bringing to life Hill's terrific conceit of Eel Marsh House, an isolated old mansion in the brackish marshes on the outskirts of a coastal village, accessible only by a low causeway that disappears twice a day when high tide floods the marshes.
For Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, who stars as a young solicitor named Arthur Kipps, The Woman in Black is an opportunity to make a reasonably graceful break from the role that has dominated his life since childhood. For the new owners of England's legendary Hammer horror brand, until recently dormant from the 1970s, it's an opportunity to stake their claim to continuing in the tradition of Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster et al. For curious movie watchers, it's an opportunity to see how Radcliffe does in another role—and how an old-fashioned haunted house story plays today.
In all these capacities, The Woman in Black is serviceable, if not inspired. Sporting sideburns and a shuffling walk, Radcliffe is fine as an early 20th-century everyman in an emotional fog after the death of his wife, who died giving birth to their son Joseph (Misha Handley, Radcliffe's real-life godson). I don't suppose Radcliffe, at 22, is quite old enough for a widowed father of a four-year-old in early 20th-century London. At any rate, his eyes, when he looks at the boy, are not those of a father. But since father and son are separated for nearly the whole film, it's not a notable handicap.