This weekend, there’s a highly anticipated match-up between two impressive competitors. They’ll be butting heads, indoors, for glory that’ll last through at least the next few months. There are some big names involved. Oh, and I guess there’s a big football game going on, too.
I’m referring to two spectacular ghost stories that hit theaters this weekend–The Woman in Black and The Innkeepers. The big names include Daniel Radcliffe, the Hammer studio, Ciaran Hinds, and… well, I guess The Innkeepers has Kelly McGillis. Other than Paranormal Activity 3, there’s been a bit of a dry spell for wide-release horror films. To get two films in one weekend seems like an embarrassment of riches within that context. And to have two of this particular quality, our cups runneth over. Let’s break these down and see where they’re similar, where they’re different, and then I’ll give my preference.
At their heart, there are a lot of similarities between these two, despite the fact that they take place in different eras (The Woman in Black is in the early 20th century, while The Innkeepers is modern-day). Both films understand the overwhelming importance of atmospherics in ghost stories. The Woman in Black, from the Hammer studios, employs a tried-and-true beautifully traditional route–the spooky castle/mansion, secluded in the foggy marshland and woods of the UK. The Innkeepers places itself in a centuries-old inn/hotel in the northeastern US. The hauntings in both films are the result of a vengeful female suicide victim. And as a result, both movies successfully put a wonderful background story in place. Both films absolutely love their jump scares and use them to tremendous effect. And it’s in the jump scares that the films take different paths.
The Woman in Black lures you in, subtly, to get your goat. They use their jump scares a lot, all in the interest of horror, all thanks to the wonderful atmospherics that are established. Many of the film’s jump scares border on the cliché–there’s no denying it–but they’re executed exactly the way they’re intended to be executed. Having seen it in the theater, I can assure you that all five people seated around me were taken in by every single one of them, to the point that I honestly wondered if the girls to my left were sobbing (they weren’t). The Innkeepers, on the other hand, uses them in a very deconstructionist way. There are jump scares but they’re used for humor. It’s anything but cliché because you’re expecting to get a jolt, a scare, and instead you end up laughing. And that’s what director Ti West intended. But in doing so, West leads you to let your guard down. Letting your guard down, in turn, gives the actual horror in the film’s denouement that much more teeth.
Humor is another key element that differentiates the two. The Innkeepers is anything but a conventional horror film because it adds humor. Mind you, this isn’t something in the vein of Shaun of the Dead. You’ll never confuse the comedy and horror. It is a horror, and you’ll never forget that fact. But there are also gobs of places that elicit chuckles and even full-on belly laughs. And like the jump scares used for humor, the overall humor of the film serves to put the viewer at ease. It aids the effectiveness tremendously. The Woman in Black, on the other hand, is a straight horror, as you’d expect from Hammer. It wisely devotes itself completely to the genre as only a Hammer film can.
There’s also the matter of the cast of both films. The Innkeepers is full of relatively unknown actors. Kelly McGillis is the biggest name, and she’s not exactly a huge name. But the performances put in by Sara Paxton and Pat Healy are wonderful, delivered in precisely the way the film needs most. They’re likable and relatable characters, and their off-screen names aren’t a distraction. I think you see where I’m going with this. The Woman in Black stars Daniel Radcliffe. The whole world has known him as Harry Potter for more than a decade. There’s an early scene where he’s riding a train, and all I could think was “Is he going to Hogwarts?!?!”. He’s reading a newspaper and I expected the images to move the same way that they do in the Potter universe. Don’t get me wrong. None of that is the fault of Radcliffe, or the way the film was made. It’s not Radcliffe’s fault that he’s so intertwined with a very specific character from a very unique universe, or that my dumb ass couldn’t separate the two. As a matter of fact, he turns in a fine performance. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a distraction for at least the first 20 minutes or so in the movie.
As you can probably tell by now, I’m a bigger fan of The Innkeepers. It does all of the things that The Woman in Black does so well, but also does more to separate it from the pack. Deep down, though, I’d encourage people to see both movies. There are a lot of horror movies out there that evoke rolling eyes, and they exist because audiences see them regardless of their mediocre or bad content. If more people supported movies like either of these, it would encourage Hammer to make more films. It would encourage big studios to give more money, wider releases, and more advertising to young, inventive people like Ti West. In short, see The Innkeepers first. But see both at some point.