Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Woman in Black (1989)

Dir. Herbert Wise

Based upon the novel by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black is a quietly shudder-some ghost story capable of chilling the flesh of even the most hardened horror fanatic. Arthur (Adrian Rawlins), a mild-mannered young lawyer, is sent from London to Crythin Gifford to represent his firm at the funeral of a recently deceased client, a reclusive widow. While he is conducting an inventory of the woman’s possessions at her isolated house, he has several terrifying encounters with a mysterious figure which not only threaten his sanity, but his very life.

While the story may be familiar – young man of rational mind is thrust into terrifying situations of a paranormal nature, in a place that treats him as an outsider – the solid direction, moody locales and convincing performances ensure The Woman in Black is not just another ‘things that go bump in the night’ flick going through the motions. While things certainly do go bump in the night throughout the story, the slow burning tension and grim finale that refuses point blank to cop out, will linger long enough in the periphery of your grey matter to have you reaching for the light switch when sleep evades you.

From the outset, it is made clear something is not quite right about the seaside town of Crythin Gifford. The reactions of the superstitious locals when Arthur’s mission is revealed, is telling – and a sense of foreboding is stealthily conceived, but is clipped enough so as not to seem too clich├ęd. Hushed whispers and outright ostracism ensue. The house where much of the story unfolds is situated off shore on a remote stretch of marshland and can only be reached at low tide, meaning that if Arthur is stranded there, he will be forced to stay the night. There’s talk of sudden mists slithering in over the marshes from the sea and catching people on the causeway, disorientating them and condemning them to a watery grave. Adapted for British television by Quatermass scribe Nigel Kneale, The Woman in Black features a few of the writer’s unmistakable preoccupations, in particular the perception of technology, in this instance electricity, as a quasi-magical force with sinister connotations. Set in the early twentieth century, the general populace of the time regarded electricity with great suspicion and it was generally considered to be a mysterious force that was capable of such diabolical deeds as reviving the dead. That Eel Marsh house is powered by it adds to the location’s sense of otherworldliness in comparison with the gas-lit homes of the townsfolk back on the mainland. The rather cranky generator is located in a little out-house behind the main building, and at several points throughout the film, Arthur must venture out into the damp, mist-enshrouded grounds to restart it. The scene where he dashes about the house turning on all the lights before it gets dark, adds to the uneasy atmosphere of the place.



The house’s former owner Mrs Drablow was considered something of a kook, a stand-offish eccentric. When Arthur explores the house he discovers, amongst other things, a door to a room that is firmly locked, and several audio diaries recorded by Mrs Drablow on a phonograph. More goose-pimple inducing information is relied to him, and the audience, about the titular woman and her connection to the Drablow house when he listens to these. On a dark, stormy night, no less. Unnerved by what he hears, Arthur attempts to cross the causeway back to town, only to become lost in the mist and further terrified by the sound of screaming and crying from within it. Sound is also used to unsettle in the scene where Arthur investigates banging noises in the night, leading to the discovery of what lies behind the locked door and the chilly encounter that follows.

The eponymous woman’s appearances to Arthur are spine-chillingly realised. That they usually occur in broad daylight and in the open, also adds to the creepiness. The stillness and openness of one scene in particular is immensely effective when the lone, funereally garbed figure is glimpsed in a ruined graveyard beside the house... When Arthur is eventually retrieved from the house and brought back into the town in a feverish state, his night terrors grow worse and culminate in a nerve shattering moment when the spectral woman hovers over his bed screeching into his face.Unfortunately for Arthur however, the worst is yet to come...



The Woman in Black is a quiet and highly effective chiller, the likes of which are rarely made anymore. Unfortunately it is quite hard to come by, as the DVD is no longer in print. Hopefully the remake will generate enough interest to convince whoever owns the rights that the time is right to finally release it and send shivers up the spine of a whole new generation.

This review is dedicated to Christine over at Fascination with Fear, who, for as long as I have known her, has championed this film and urged me to check it out. Thanks for the sleepless night, Chris!

16 comments:

Wes M said...

Excellent post James. This is one of those films I've never investigated beyond it's unremarkable title, and just my luck the DVD is now OOP. I've been leaning towards this type of Horror for a while now, having grown a little tired of contemporary film makers and their preoccupation with grim techno-splatter. I'd definitely like to see more films like Let's Scare Jessica to Death and The Possession of Joel Delaney which I've heard is well worth seeking out. (Hmm, this seems like a good time to pick up Fulci's splatter-free MurderRock!)

I wish I could see more of Nigel Kneale's work outside of Quatermass and Hammer's The Witches, but his telefilms, Year of the Sex Olympics and The Stone Tape are now well out of print - I thought the BBC would have put them out themselves after the BFI discs were retired but so far nothing. And they also have Kneale's adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four starring Peter Cushing and Andre Morell languishing in the vaults...

James Gracey said...

That is such a good point, Wes. And you'd think that with the Beeb making all the cuts they've been making and scaling back on original productions, they'd maybe trek down to their vaults and let these long lost classics see the light of day again! I'm also really curious to check out The Stone Tapes; like The Woman in Black, it has a chilling reputation that precedes it. Alas, I had to watch TWIB on YouTube (in instalments, no less. Gah!), but aside from the flow being interrupted, it was well worth it. And my only way of viewing it outside of downloading it. Which I still might...
Thanks for your comment - I hope you're well.

James Gracey said...

PS Let's Scare Jessica to Death is one I still need to see. For shame!

Jon T said...

I managed to catch The Stone Tape a couple of years ago and it is worth seeing if you can track it down (I rented it from the local library). It also has the usual Kneale preoccupations such as the machine itself which picks up vibrations from another dimension. It was quite chilling but I have to admit I found the TV format (shot on tape) worked against it for me.

I saw Let's Scare Jessica to Death as well quite recently and that one is well worth seeking out. One of the best psychological horrors I've seen.

I haven't seen this Woman in Black - might go on youtube myself! :)

WriterME said...

A massive fan of WiB, and despite having read the book and seen the play, I never did get around to watching the film... Might have to now!

I'm not too sure about the Stone Tapes, but the concept is interesting and I'd definitely recommend it. Watched it as one of a bunch of ghost narratives I borrowed from a friend, so there is a DVD out there somewhere...

Which reminds me: are you familiar with Ghost Watch? :)

James Gracey said...

Ghost Watch!!! I have vague memories of seeing bits of that as a child and being terrified. What was the ghost called? Mr Pipes? Gahhh!!!
I haven't seen it since, but have heard nothing but good things about it. Seemed to be very ahead of its time.

WriterME said...

Heh, it was indeed Mr Pipes :)

I borrowed a copy from someone and watched it three times in the week I had it; recently sat down and revisited it.

It must have its faults, but the writing and pacing is very strong; absolutely love it and it creeped me out in the same way WiB does. I always recommend it to anyone who will listen ^^

Christine Hadden said...

Finally! The review I've waited for, hehe! So glad you liked this one, I absolutely knew you would. And aww, you're so sweet to dedicate it to me. I couldn't wait to read what you thought of it because no one writes a review as succinctly and eloquently as James Gracey!
Your words describe perfectly the atmospheric chill one gets from watching WIB.
And that graveyard scene! I know the one you're talking about! I get goosebumps just thinking about it!

But what do you mean you've never see Let's Scare Jessica!?! If we could use the same region DVDs I'd have it and Lake Mungo on a plane to N. Ireland tomorrow! Hey, at least you've finally seen WIB '89!

And lastly, I need to see The Stone Tape as well, I've heard a lot about it.

Thanks again for the shout out! xo

Anonymous said...

This review -and the well-chosen stills - makes me wish I could view one of my favourites once again right now!

@James: its been uploaded again lately(unsegmented,good qual.)

@Wes M: Agree on N.Kneale´s work, The Witches and Let´s scare J.
On YT you can also find Beasts (1976 ITV series,writer:Kneale)
Beasts Baby:A young couple recently moved to the countryside find "something" immured in their cottage´s walls...
Maren

Paul Synnott said...

Great article. I love Ghostwatch but felt it was let down a bit by the strange RADA acting from the mother and daughters which was a bit of a giveaway, contrasting with the naturalism of Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene etc. It's still one of the scariest things I've seen on TV. The sound design and weird mass seance at the end is terrifying.

WIB was very spooky. Agree that the chills were very effective, especially the woman in the distance in daytime, but the bed scene really disturbed me. Also interested in the ideas on electricity, technology, and recording devices, which seems to preoccupy Kneale. From the look of the remake trailer it looks like they've over-produced it and gone for the stylised/broad approach, but I'll give it a chance.

Hard to find this on DVD now. The BFI released the Stone Tape & Ghostwatch but I paid a small fortune for them, as well as the BBC xmas ghost stories. A lot of them are now up on Youtube. Well worth seeing.

James Gracey said...

Hmmmm. This review seems to have sparked a nostalgia trip for fans of Ghost Watch and The Stone Tapes. I think a friend has TST on DVD (or possibly VHS – remember that??), but I’ll need to check. Really interested in watching it now – and Ghost Watch!

@Christine – No, no – thank YOU for your continuous prompts to watch this. What pushed me in the end was the release of the remake – chances of me seeing that were pretty high, but I wanted to see the original first. So glad I did! Next up – Lake Mungo and Jessica… :)

@Maren – thank you for those links! It would be great to re-watch Woman in Black un-segmented – plus, I’ve been pestering a couple of friends to watch it, so those links should come in handy. Very intrigued about Beasts!

@Paul – I saw a few clips from Ghostwatch on TV recently – think it was one of those countdown of TV’s scariest moments shows – and I do recall my parents watching it when I was younger – but not much else! Should try and watch it again alongside The Stone Tapes. Then hopefully have to sleep with the light on for a week! ;)

Black Gloves said...

Just a note to say that GhostWatch is now out again in the UK. Released by 101 Films, you can pick it up for a fiver from Amazon!

James Gracey said...

Thanks for the heads up!

lrobhubbard said...

Very good review; just managed to see the 2012 version today.

Even though most of the Kneale DVD's are OOP, a good portion of the shows have been put up on YouTube - THE STONE TAPE, YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS, BEASTS, some of the Quatermass shows... and THE WOMAN IN BLACK.

James Gracey said...

Cheers Irob. I have a friend who is something of a Nigel Kneale enthusiast - he's got a few of those titles you mentioned, but if I can't borrow those, YouTube will have to suffice! Thanks for the heads up. :)

Kat Mortensen said...

I'm fortunate enough to have acquired the DVD a number of years ago. Just thinking about it sends shivers up my spine!