Before we begin, I must confess I have neither read the book nor seen the play, so this is coming from the perspective of someone arriving at this story fresh. I had seen the trailer, and admittedly a lot of the big jump scares are in there- but there is so much more to this film than making you jump (and, chances are, it will).
For me, as someone who isn’t especially squeamish, any horror/ thriller works better the less you see. Some of the scariest moments in cinema history are simply seen through someone’s reaction, a sound off-camera/ in darkness, or being aware of some knowledge that the on-screen protagonist doesn’t have. This film relies on all of the above and more, managing to keep the scares coming, each as creative as the next.
The most effective part is the overwhelming sense of dread, that this is a series of events that is out of anybody’s control. The more Arthur (a grown-up, post-Hogwarts Daniel Radcliffe) investigates strange noises, the more you’re willing him to ignore them, get on with his job and leave. But the more he wants to help, the more trouble he is perceived to be causing.
There are times when suspense is stretched almost to snapping point, and yet is never overdone to the extent where it starts to get boring. In one scene, Arthur crosses a landing to investigate a creaking noise. This seems to take him several minutes, and the suspense only increases with every delaying second. Pretty much every moment of suspense has its own reward, so you never feel unduly cheated.
Most importantly, there is an emotional core to this film that comes to a conclusion, and one that I found very satisfying, at least from a storytelling perspective.
So we come to the elephant in the room. How is Daniel Radcliffe as a leading man, without the support of his friends or his magic wand? Well the truth is that there’s nothing here we didn’t see in his Harry Potter. This includes a certain amount of jaw-clenching stiffness, but he had made large strides of improvement over the last half of the series, and I was more than willing to believe him as this character in this period of history. He still has some way to go, but worry not, he can carry a film. He knows how to react better than to act, so this role is something of a perfect fit.
This is one of those films that seems better the more you think about it, even afterwards. I’m certainly intending to see it again. And to those concerned about seeing an edited version (the BBFC ordered a few minor cuts for the 12A certificate), don’t be. The film does not feel in any way neutered or dumbed-down for a younger audience, quite the opposite. I can’t imagine this film would work anywhere near as well outside of a cinema, no matter how decent your home system is, so if you wait for the unrated DVD you will probably end up missing out.
Screenwriter Jane Goldman’s love for Asian horror has paid off successfully here, and she is becoming a force to be reckoned with. She also co-penned two other recent favourites of mine, Stardust and X-Men First Class. I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t join them by making my annual top 10 of the year.