by Jeff Schultz on February 22, 2012

Horror movies traditionally haunt movie theaters around Valentine’s Day, recognizing audiences’ subconscious need for contrast against the holiday’s sugar-coated atmosphere. For every “He’s Not That Into You” or “Dear John,” there’s “My Bloody Valentine 3D” and “The Wolfman,” exchanging boxes of chocolate for buckets of blood.

Cupid’s adversary this year is “The Woman in Black”, a movie about life-after-death that on an external level asks if there is life for star Daniel Radcliffe beyond Harry Potter, after graduation from Hogwarts last summer.

Fledgling lawyer Arthur Kipps, played by Radcliffe, investigates the legend of the title ghost when forced by his employer to settle the legal affairs of the Eel Marsh House. Kipps, dealing with the personal tragedy of his wife’s death during child birth, settles in at the shadowy mansion, with its nightmarish mechanical toys, graves of small children in the frontyard and baneful specter in a dark veil. A ghost with a grudge, the spirit inflicts her lethal vengeance on a small village and won’t stop until her dead child is returned to her.

The camera keeps close to Kipps, following him as he apprehensively creeps into every room, catching flashes of an eye, a handprint on the window and finally, a full view of the title character. Between the haunts, Kipps performs his investigation. The ghost is the wretched sister of the house’s owner, who prevented her from saving her child in a drowning incident. Kipps befriends a wealthy landowner in the village, his only ally, and decides unearthing the son’s corpse and reuniting the two cadavers is the best hope of ending the spirit’s tirade.

If the plot sounds familiar, you’re exactly right. Its concoction includes three parts “Dracula,” two parts “The Ring,” one part “The Changeling” with a dash of “Sherlock Holmes.” Essentially, it’s a genre movie, allowing its star to make it his own.Radcliffe holds confidence as Kipps, trading in his wand for a burning candle and hatchet. His respectable persona heightens the classic feel of “The Woman in Black” that many of today’s standard horror entries slightly lack.

But, as a drawback, Radcliffe playing the hero neutralizes the terror. The audience knows no real harm can befall Harry Potter in a haunted house, somewhat like audiences expected for Mayberry’s Don Knotts in 1966’s “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” No matter what the jam, we know a member of the Harry Potter clan will come to the rescue when peril is at its apex. And that’s literally what happens. Radcliffe shares the screen with fellow alum Ciaran Hinds, who plays the landlord that knows firsthand the real threat the specter poses.

The second star of “The Woman in Black” is not a human, nor a ghost, but the production studio Hammer Film Productions. Hammer picked up in Britain where the Universal Studios monster movies left off in the 1950s, producing films like “The Curse of Frankenstein,” “Taste the Blood of Dracula” and “One Million Years B.C.,’ making stars out of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed. Adding Daniel Radcliffe to its canon is the greatest thrill in “The Woman in Black.”

Director James Watkins knows he is dealing with star power and carefully keeps Radcliffe in nearly every frame. The camera’s gaze belongs to that of the ghost, realizing it has quite the catch, and does everything to scare him out of the horror genre and back into family films. “The Woman in Black” would have been a much different if a more hardened actor, like Tom Hardy or Daniel Craig, played Kipps.

Radcliffe grows his sideburns longer and ditches the glasses to shed his alter ego, even downing whiskey in a few scenes, but his efforts remain unconvincing overall. He has no magic cloak this time to fool us into believing he is his character.

Here’s my advice to Radcliffe: find a role where you can be yourself. You should not be a real estate attorney snooping in graves when these are the days you should be having fun with people your own age. Know it’s not impossible to separate from the character you are synonymous with (Harrison Ford – “Indiana Jones”, Johnny Depp – Captain Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the of the Caribbean”, Ewan McGregor – Mark Renton in “Trainspotting”), but do know some have failed (Macaulay Culkin – Kevin McCallister in “Home Alone”, Jon Heder – “Napoleon Dynamite”).

Find something that fits you, Mr. Radcliffe, and find it quick before you find yourself forever stranded on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.

Jeff Schultz is a reporter for “The Chesterton Tribune” in Northwest Indiana and former editor-in-chief of “The Purdue Review.” He is also co-host of The Eclectic Blender on WVLP, 98.3 FM and wvlp.org Wednesday nights.

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