Shadowvision: “THE WOMAN IN BLACK”
Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black and white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
Gothic horror is always intriguing to revisit in monochrome, especially considering just how dependent it is on its art direction. Many times, the black-and-white translation is effective as it draws comparisons to many of the dark, sketched portraits one may see in the pages of a Gothic horror book. Other times, the black-and-white may take away from the color scheme associated with fantastical elements, especially in tales that depend on a specifically eerie aesthetic. Either way, when the visuals are stripped of color, there’s a certain dread evoked from the presence of darkness throughout.
For those reasons, and much more, THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012) makes a perfect fit for a black-and-white re-examination. From the title on, the film lends itself to classic haunted house tales and the Gothic mechanisms of the titular antagonist. Possibly the strongest reason for the monochrome translation comes from the production company itself: the big theatrical comeback of Hammer Horror, which guarantees impressive production value and some truly terrifying set pieces that don’t require the colorful art direction of their ’70s output.
For those unfamiliar, THE WOMAN IN BLACK follows a widowed lawyer who travels to a rumored-to-be-cursed estate to sort out the will and deed of the property owner. Suddenly, when children in the nearby town begin to die, the lawyer suspects that the deaths may have something to do with the visions of a ghostly woman that haunts him. In the midst of guilt and desperation, the lawyer seeks to end the woman’s terrifying hex, even at the risk of his own life and sanity.
Surprisingly, the film isn’t necessarily defined by its color palette as is; the colors are often muted in favor of pale whites and strong blacks, which nearly give off the impression of monochrome at times. Otherwise, the primarily used colors are mostly those that coincide with a particular setting; the night scenes exude a blueish hue, garden scenes have a soft green edge, and scenes lit (or involving) fire are defined by a yellow glow. In this sense, they’re mostly included for mood’s sake, as they only slightly add to the period piece aspect of the narrative and otherwise don’t add much to the visual punch of the film.
In black-and-white however, the film falls into a whole new groove entirely, providing a richer and scarier experience altogether. Suddenly, the creepy night sequences add depth to the massive shadowed halls, which makes the titular character more unpredictable in her tactics. The incredible production design benefits as well, as every creepy little trinket, toy and piece of artwork now feels more sinister in its presentation. The story also adopts a greater sense of mystery in monochrome, which immerses the audience as Arthur Kipp descends deeper into the world of THE WOMAN IN BLACK.
When reevaluated in black-and-white, THE WOMAN IN BLACK hosts interesting tonal shifts. While the movie is most often driven by suspense and tension—ramped up in black-and-white—there’s also this hint of dark fantasy. By doing so, there’s a Grimm Brothers-esque cautionary element to the story, especially when it comes to the moral quandary of Arthur Kipp and the children who are dying. And the woman herself, instead of feeling like a tragic figure, appears to be more sinister in black-and-white, possibly as she’s given a visual synchronicity to her supernatural elements.
That’s not saying that the film doesn’t have its caveats when viewed without color however. No matter how high you ramp up the contrast and brightness, there’s certain scenes that are just too dark to make out the smaller moments within the shadows. Furthermore, the sporadic use of CGI is now much more obvious and uncomfortable, especially when paired with the impressive practical achievements in the film. Luckily, if the audience finds a fair balance within their contrast, the overtly dark scenes are few and far between, as is the distracting CGI.
The black-and-white translation is only as good as the film itself, which should be credited to James Watkins. In monochrome, the viewer can definitely notice Watkins’ understanding of Gothic horror, whether it be in the incredibly concise pacing of the scares or his focused eye on particular props meant to invade your psyche as haunted house red herrings. Tim Maurice-Jones should also be credited for his wonderful cinematography, bringing each creepy image to life and making the film effective in color and without color. And the cast, anchored by a strong and emotional Daniel Radcliffe, as well as an excellent Ciaran Hinds, sells the period piece setting which contributes to the tonal appropriation to monochrome.
Overall, THE WOMAN IN BLACK is an incredible black-and-white horror experience, and worthy of a recommendation. While the experience runs neck and neck with the intended color version, the very few scenes that are too dark for comfort give the latter a slight edge. However, the ghost story aesthetics and visuals lend themselves greatly to black-and-white, so for those seeking scares with quiet, old fashioned fare, cut out the color and take another look at THE WOMAN IN BLACK.