In James Watkins' gripping big-screen adaptation of Susan Hill's 1983 supernatural suspense novel, Radcliffe portrays Arthur Kipps, a young Victorian-era London lawyer sent to the English countryside to settle the affairs of a deceased woman. He travels to her derelict home on the outskirts of a small village and finds the house is not as empty as he expected. As he speaks to some of the townspeople, he learns their children die shortly after a mysterious woman dressed in black is seen by someone at the house at the focus of Kipps' investigation.
Much of the film follows Radcliffe's character as he is stalked in the isolated mansion by the malevolent specter, played by Liz White, while trying to figure out who the ghost is and what she wants. Instead of graphic images and fancy special effects, Watkins employs to terrific effect some timeless instruments of cinematic horror -- creaky floorboards, flickering candles, glimpses of a person who shouldn't be there, screaming children, a rocking chair with a mind of its own and foreboding messages inexplicably scrawled on walls -- to convey the peril the hero bravely faces.
So what does a script look like for a film that has very little dialogue, but heaps of tension and atmosphere?
"It was as you can imagine," Radcliffe told United Press International in New York this week.
"It was like a novel, basically. The middle section, totally," he noted. "One of the things that most attracted me to it was that middle section with no dialogue. In fact, originally, there were a couple of little bits of lines in that section, which James, as we were going along, cut out because James' idea was, 'If you don't have to use dialogue to tell a story, then don't.' Which was lovely for me, as well, because after spending so much time on Potter where there is a huge amount of exposition and telling the audience information they already know because it's been a while since they last heard it ... . There was a lot of that on Potter and, on this, there was really no exposition almost at all, particularly in that middle section. James just let me run the house and I think it's the most compelling part of the film."
The well-spoken, down-to-earth actor, who recently wrapped a successful stint in the Broadway musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," said he was able to sit and watch "The Woman in Black" in a darkened movie theater and enjoy all the chills and thrills like any other audience member because Watkins did such a masterful job putting the movie together.
"I was scared, absolutely," Radcliffe confessed. "What James is really good at is controlling the level of tension and keeping it on a low burn for a long time, so that when those jumps come, your body's ready for them because you've been tense for the last hour. There were at least two or three moments that I properly jumped at when I saw the film and one that I didn't know was going to be there. Actually, it's become kind of relatively recognizable. It is the one where I'm at the window and the face appears next to mine. I didn't know that was going to be there, so when I first saw that in the trailer, I went, 'Oh my God!' It was just really creepy and James delighted in knowing he was going to really be freaking people out."
Radcliffe told reporters he had no qualms playing a widower and father to a 4-year-old son, even though, in reality, he is only 22.
"He's a young man," the actor said of his on-screen alter-ego who is seen with his son in the beginning and end of the film. "It's conceivable I could have a child. It's certainly conceivable a man of 24, 25 -- particularly in that era -- would have. It was kind of strange. I knew people, obviously, had seen me in a school-boy outfit for so long it might be a leap to suddenly see me as a dad, so I thought the thing that would help solve that problem is if the relationship between me and my son was believable, so I asked them to audition my god-son in real life."
Misha Handley, the adorable youngster Radcliffe mentioned, landed the role and plays Kipps' son in the movie. Also co-starring Ciaran Hinds and Oscar nominee Janet McTeer, "The Woman in Black" opens in U.S. theaters Friday. It is rated PG-13.