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The Woman in Black: Old Fashioned Spook Show

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Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a regular column about the horror genre.

The Woman in Black has been running in London for more than thirty years. It’s a ghost story, a play adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s novel. The smash production now comes to San Francisco, where it can be seen at ACT’s Strand Theater on Market Street.

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Although there are a number of characters in the play, there are only two actors seen on stage, with British actors Robin Herford and Antony Eden each playing more than one role. There’s actually a third performer who appears on stage as the titular character, the ghost. But the person who dons the flowing black gown of the spirit and occasionally appears in the shadows to frighten the lead character is uncredited, and does not even appear during the curtain call.

Robin Herford (background) and Antony Eden in “The Woman in Black,” which performs at ACT’s Strand Theater.

Set around 100 years in the past, The Woman in Black tells the tale of a young solicitor from London who comes to the desolate seaside town of Crythin Gifford to close out the estate of the recently deceased eccentric old lady who lives in the town’s creepy mansion. There he encounters strange and spooky shadows in the night. Eventually he finds out who is haunting the house and why, but I’m not going to give that away, you’ll have to see the show in order to find out.

The play is simply produced, with the actors performing on a largely bare stage, a red velvet chair and a wicker trunk serving as the only set pieces. All of the show’s various scenes and settings are staged against this backdrop. Amazingly, the show is surprisingly effective given the absence of full scale sets. There are a couple of genuinely creepy moments, such as when the ghost appears, or when there’s a sudden flash of loud thunder, a moment which made the audience jump on the rainy and damp Tuesday evening when I saw the show. One ghostly interlude in which the spirit appears behind a flowing a dark see-through curtain is chilling.

Herford and Eden are good actors who portray their respective roles well and play off each other beautifully. Eden is particularly good as the young solicitor who finds, to his horror, that he’s not as alone as he thought he was in the cavernous old house. The house, he discovers, is a tomb, filled with haunted visions and dark secrets.

The Woman in Black was adapted into a hit film starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe nearly ten years ago. If you’ve seen that film then you know the play’s story. Even if you’re familiar with this spooky tale, the play offers all manor of creepy delights. It’s the perfect story to be told on a dark and stormy night.

The Woman in Black runs at the Strand Theater through January 16. Tickets are $35-85.

A spooky moment from “The Woman in Black,” now showing live on stage at ACT’s Strand Theater. Photo by Kasey L. Ross

 

Malignant Horror auteur James Wan, who gave us the hit chillers The Conjuring and Insidious, not to mention the lesser known but oh-so-scary Dead Silencenow offers Malignant,  the latest film through his own company Atomic Monster Productions. The film had a less than successful run in theaters a few months back, and now comes to Blu Ray while also being available to stream at You Tube, Google Play, AppleTV and Vudu. (If you buy the Blu Ray, then please consider purchasing it from Deep Discount and not from Amazon, a greedy company which treats its employees horribly.)

Malignant is a mixed bag. In this era of endless sequels and remakes, Wan is to be commended for coming up with a wholly original idea. But there are a few issues with the film’s execution.

Annabelle Wallis stars as Madison, a young woman who’s been having strange visions of violent murders. Before long she finds out that the killings are really happening.Even more bizarre, Madison herself turns out to be the killer, or rather it’s her twin. The killer is Gabriel, whom Madison thought was her imaginary childhood friend But no, Gabriel is another conscious being who literally lives inside Madison’s body. He had been dormant for a number of years, but now he’s awake, and he’s bloodthirsty.

There are two types of audience members in the world of horror fandom. There are those who love films which feature excessive violence and those who are repelled by it. Which camp each viewer falls in will determine how they react to Malignant.

And Malignant is indeed violent. In one particularly shocking sequence Gabriel, now fully in control of Madison’s body, finds himself in a jail cell with other alleged criminals. When one of the other inmates begins taunting Gabriel, he flies into a rage. Within minutes he kills everyone in the cell, as well as a police officer who shows up and tries to put a stop to the killing. These killings are bloody, with one inmate literally getting her skull smashed flat. Others are killed when Gabriel rams his arm through their bodies. The blood flows freely in this scene as the cell becomes a literal bloodbath. Those whose enjoy this kind of extreme gore will be delighted, while those who find such imagery triggering may find it difficult to sit through this sequence.

Overall Malignant tells a good story with one major flaw. In spite of the gore, the film just isn’t particularly frightening. Wan relies too heavily on CGI effects when all the film really needs is a little more atmosphere, the same kind of spooky atmosphere that he employed so well in Insidious and The Conjuring. Still, the film has a number of fun moments, and offers good performances from Wallis, and from George Young and Michole Briana White as two police detectives who find themselves investigating the murders being committed by Madison/Gabriel.

Malignant will definitely appeal to some in the horror community. They should be allowed to enjoy it for what it is.

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David-Elijah Nahmod

David-Elijah Nahmod

I, David-Elijah Nahmod am a Queer, American/Israeli dual national of Syrian descent who has lived in New York City and Tel Aviv.
Currently in San Francisco, my eclectic writing career includes LGBT publications (news and entertainment) and monster magazines. In 2012 I was voted Film Reviewer of the Year at the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Film Awards.
Look for me in Bay Area Reporter, Hoodline.com, South Florida Gay News, Echo Magazine, Outfront, Scary Monsters Magazine, Videoscope, and, of course, Broke Ass Stuart, (I'm so broke it's SCARY!)
Now, let's watch a horror movie!

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