‘Hammer horror’ is back, which will probably only be meaningful to the older reader. The Woman in Black is a welcome return for this purveyor of British horror movies that has been defunct for 25 years; interestingly it’s only got a 12A certificate whereas the original Hammer benefited from salacious marketing emphasising the films’ ‘adult’ credentials.
In Britain the X-certificate (adults only) had replaced the H (for ‘horror’) certificate in 1951. In an attempt to differentiate itself from the new mass medium, television, film companies began using the X certificate as a way of branding their product as risqué and/or violent:
The number of films awarded an ‘X’ certificate by the British censor rose remorselessly from 1954 onward and especially at the end of the 1950s, when it quadrupled . . . (David Pirie, 1980, part 3, Hammer Horror Teaching Pack)
Indeed Hammer used the X in its marketing for The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and this move launched the production company on a successful series of Gothic horror movies including both ‘Universal’s’ 1930s monsters in Curse of Frankenstein (1956) and Dracula (1957). Using lurid colour, combined with the British theatrical tradition of acting (best exemplified by Peter Cushing), Hammer’s films were condemned by most critics and loved by audiences. Like the Victorian Gothic of its source material, Hammer movies sublimated the sexual into the violence of the monster. As censorship shackles lessened the sex became less sublimated and in the 1970s, when Hammer was struggling to survive economically, it produced exploitation films such as The Vampire Lovers (1970).
Sensibly, as the studio wouldn’t be advised to compete with the ‘gorenography’ of the Saw series (US, 2004-10), it’s chosen a modern ghost story, by Susan Hill, for its comeback. Clever casting of Daniel Radcliffe, in his first post-Potter role, ensured plenty of publicity for the $17m budgeted feature and it’s taken a healthy $35m after 10 days in North America. Despite its ‘lowly’ certificate for a horror film, there are plenty of spine-tingling-twitching-in-the-seat moments.
The film fits happily into the Hammer oeuvre with its Gothic house and suspicious ‘peasants’ though I wasn’t clear where it was set. Sight & Sound suggests the Fens, which makes sense, but the Settle-Carlisle railway is advertised on the train Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) travels on (our resident trainspotter – Roy – tells me the train’s all wrong). We even get the ‘classic’ scene when our hero enters the pub to glaring from the locals. However, there’s also more than enough to suggest the makers have learned from J-horror of how to make little details in the background as scary as big ones in the foreground.
I enjoyed the film even though I felt Radcliffe was little more than a lump of wood. I didn’t get a sense of the protagonist being reluctant to stay the night in the house that most of us wouldn’t enter in broad daylight. Hopefully the film will do well to continue a box-office renaissance for British cinema over the last 12 months. BAFTA, however, aren’t helping by claiming The Artist is the best film from last year.