THE WOMAN IN BLACK - Lessons in Character Motivation...
I'm here today to do a "quasi" review/observation. The movie in question is the newly minted second movie, of Harry Potter actor "Daniel Radcliff" (where he does not play a wizard) The Woman in Black, now available at your friendly RedBox after a short theatrical run.
This movie enters the much traditional Horror/Thiller genre, that in these lean days of Hollywood, have been the quick bet for all studios heads and producers looking to keep their leased luxury rides.
I liked the movie from the begining and the production is solid, great cinematography and a great cast of actors surround Mr. Radcliff in his sophore movie playing a character other than the famous wizard. The story is about a young, recently widowed laywer, who is sent to an old house in the English contryside to clean up the "paper trail" of an old widow who lived there. Now, to make matters worse, that house is not only very creepy looking but it's at the end of a long winding road that gets covered by the marsh tide two times a day. And not only that... the people mention that house is haunted.
So, not only is the house pretty frightening to begin with in the daylight and is unaccesible to others two times a day, but it also comes with it's own ghost - talk about a bad real estate deal. But that's rather here nor there but what is interesting in the how the movie is set up. We as writers always go by the numbers or at least try to do things that will bring the audience to follow and subsequently get hooked on the story. So let's start with what works with the movie and what doesn't.
Contratct with the Audience: it is done well, right from the get go there is a creepy scene that sets the tone for the movie and it shouts out loud and clear : We're in for a creeper. Great, let's move forward.
Establishing the character and his stakes. Not bad but a bit weak and for a MAJOR reason that we'll come back to later. Radcliff's character is haunted by the memory of his wife who lost her life giving birth to their son. He has missed work and is now forced to take this assigment or loose his job. Character development O.K., establishing the stakes a bit weak. But we'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Work is work and we all know in O.C. what it's like these days to loose a job. So he moves towards the village where he has to "tidy" the paper work and leave.
But once he gets there, the room he booked is not available and the solicitor hired to help him almost rushes him out of town... why? For some reason they don't want him to go to the old widow's mansion. Now, coming to my main point, for this review/observationis on how much, we as writers, must not take for granted the willingness of the audience to believe a characters actions. Character motivation should always be very clear and concise so through the WHOLE movie, so we as an audience will never doubt that the character would do such a thing, or if we haven't been shown anything, doubt what any normal human being would do.
So Radcliff's character, bound by his duty, arrives at the run down mansion and starts to work, taking out papers and papers from the craziest of places, all while visiting the most twistedly decorated toy rooms ever seen. And now the movie starts to push the scares, crows fly in! Creepy toys start going off! Noise of doors slam around. No regular person, especially one rasied in the 1890's would stay for one second in that house. You have to be a out of your mind brave, crazy or out to prove a point. I mean this house gives you the jitters when you touch the door knob!
And so again the movie continues with the scares, and scales them up nicely and better and better and yes, we get to see the Woman in Black and she scares us very well, thank you... But my problem through the whole movie is this...
How did this character get so brave?
Nobody in their right mind. Would stay in this house under normal circumstances, but not only does he stay... He stays the night! And sorts of crazy things start to happen. Here is were they lost me because the guy seems to be following the director's orders to go to door # 2 open - scare, cubbard # 3 open - scare... Window # 1 look out - scare... Why? Because there is no real reason to believe he would be this brave. So now the writers have lost me and therefore the audience and by now we all know it's just a paint by number scare movie. The shame? It never should have been that way. As writers we want to scare the audienc and take them through the ride but please, make me believe this guy has huge brass balls the size of a watermelon. In the movie Radcliff's character is a slow, gentle dazed person that lives the glows of his wives memories but never says anything about being a believer in ghosts a sceptic or anything else. There is a brief set piece by the fire with the great Cyrian Hinds where he's asked if he believed in "spiritualism" and the writers had their last chance to sell me on him being a skeptic... But he says nothing to convince me he has a will of steel.
So the movie could have been fixed in the early scene where he's given the job and where we could have been exposed to him being A) A spiritualist, B) studies ghosts or C) Simply has no time for superstitions. But they say nothing, so we assume he's a normal God fearing person and then they get another stab to convince the audience he has the temple to not get scared and they waste it in the fireplace scene. So to wrap things up, it's a great production, interesting story and a O.K. ending, but all ruined by the very poor work at developing the main characters motivation. Attention writers, these guys who did the film are no slouches but I'm amazed they made this jaffe. Don't do this ! And when you create a character always make sure the audience will always, with out a doubt believe the character will do what he'll do because he was properly fleshed out in earlier scenes.
Time to send to the writers of THE WOMAN IN BLACK to Mark's clase for a little Intermediate Screnwriting, because if they ever had any academia, they sure did not show it here.