How frustrating to be Daniel Radcliffe. One movie after Harry Potter vanquished Voldemort, and it’s like he’s anticipating having to do it all over again. Radcliffe is now in something called “The Woman in Black,’’ which just sounds as if Tim Burton bought Bellatrix Lestrange a spinoff. In it, Radcliffe searches a cavernous house, a few smaller ones, and some dense turn-of-the-19th-century fog for the source of a bunch of off-screen sound effects. His character, Arthur Kipps, is an English lawyer whose mopey demeanor has him on thin ice at work. In fairness, his wife died in childbirth - several years ago. But for him, the agony is fresh.
As punishment, he’s sent to a dreary hamlet to settle a dead woman’s legal affairs. She might be gone, but something in and around her manse continues to create quite a racket. It’s the sort of noise made by horror movies that really have no idea how else to spook you. All the screaming and jumping out of seats on the night I saw this movie attests to a certain level of professionally shameless craftsmanship. The director, James Watkins, appears to have studied other movies’ bumps in the night and accepted the real estate and clammy skin loaned to him by the Hammer studios, which, not incidentally, receive a production credit.
Between the 1950s and the 1980s, a Hammer film made the most of low budgets and old stories - Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, many a haunted house. The writing was often absurd, but it’s amazing how a little silence, a great deal of histrionics, and the singular face of Christopher Lee can give you the creeps. At its apex, Hammer made no distinction between gothic art and pop trash. The corniness and shabbiness of these films made them vaguely chic - horror you could watch with your spinster aunt.
Sadly, the movies either phased out that sort of sepulchral verisimilitude - that type of camp - or thoroughly absorbed it into today’s winking horror shows built from found video footage. “The Woman in Black’’ threatens to proceed in that direction. Janet McTeer provides a little ham to the role of a woman who dresses up her dogs because she misses her dead twin sons. But there’s not nearly enough of her. Nor is there enough legitimate suspense. Just because the sudden appearance of a crow makes me jump doesn’t mean I’m scared.
Ciarán Hinds plays the father of those dead boys (the movie is full of buried children and their miserable parents), and you could measure inseams by the length of his face. Spending his time here as Arthur’s guide, Hinds is well behaved and nearly double Radcliffe’s width, which really says a lot about how pocket-size Radcliffe is.
Anyone who’s seen this sort of snooping done by Sarah Michelle Gellar, KaDee Strickland, or almost any actor in any movie about ghouls, ghosts, and haunted stuff, will recognize that Radcliffe brings more integrity to this sort of “don’t go in there’’ acting than he needs to. He brings talent. But we’ve seen enough of the sad eyes and the heavy soul. He’s 22 and already a woebegone widower. Has no one told him there’ll be plenty of time to become John Hurt?
You’d never know it from the movies, but Radcliffe has an exuberant side. It’s just that he’s showing it in other mediums. He recently finished a Broadway run in the caffeinated musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’’ and was funny if overeager a few weeks ago on “Saturday Night Live.’’ But for now he seems to treat the movies as a domain of seriousness and suffering. It’s how we know he’s a man. (He’s even grown stubble for this part.) Maybe there’s an 80-year-old in Radcliffe. But we don’t need any more prematurely old men in movies about lost souls. Give us jazz hands.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.