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 clichéd. 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!