The Woman in Black is a 1989 British TV movie and is the first adaptation of the Susan Hill novel that is better known as the source for the hugely successful 2012 Hammer film. Interestingly, the screenplay is by Nigel Kneale, who of course had a long history with Hammer Films through the 1950s and ’60s.
The story follows young solicitor Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins), who is sent to a small English market town to attend the funeral of client Mrs Drablow, and deal with her estate at the remote Eel Marsh House, readying the property for sale. It becomes clear that the old woman had no local friends, and only Kidd and Mr Pepperall (John Cater), a local solicitor attend the funeral – though Kidd sees a mysterious third mourner, a woman. However, mention of her sees to unnerve Pepperall.
Upon visiting the house – cut off by high tides for all but a few hours a day – Kidd soon begins to understand why the locals were so frightened, as the mysterious Woman in Black (Pauline Moran) seen at the funeral is seen again, and clearly seems to be a ghostly figure. Investigation of Mrs Drablow’s papers and wax cylinder recordings suggest a family tragedy, and he hears the ghostly sounds of a horse and buggy, along with its passengers, vanishing into the marshes.
Through Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton), a local landowner he met on the train up from London, Kidd hears of the curse of The Woman in Black – Mrs Drablow’s sister, Jennet Goss, had given birth to a son but was unable to raise him. The Drablows adopted the boy but refused to allow his mother to ever reveal her true relationship to the child. Eventually, the desperate woman kidnapped the child but was caught in the rising tides as she fled. Her ghost now haunts the house, and whenever she is seen, a local child will die soon afterwards…
The Woman in Black was broadcast by ITV in the UK on Christmas Eve 1989. It was a popular and critical success but has only been re-run once (in 1994, by Channel 4) and although released on VHS video has never been made available on DVD in the UK – a US DVD did appear but is long deleted. Oddly, no-one thought to re-release it to cash in on the success of the more recent version.
We are therefore pleased to report that The Woman in Black will creep onto Blu-ray for the first time ever in a restored special edition, with an audio commentary from horror experts Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) and Kim Newman and star Andy Nyman. The package includes booklet by Andrew Pixley and will be available exclusively from 12th October via Network
Unlike the 2012 film, this version of the story stays fairly true to the original novel, save for a few curious changes – the dog Spider has been changed from female to male, the lead character’s name is changed from Kipp to Kidd, there is no phonograph in the novel (this change was presumably to help dramatise scenes of Kidd reading through paperwork) and there are several other small changes and one or two dramatic alterations towards the ending of the film.
It is, however, much more of a faithful version of the story than the Hammer film, which makes a number of variations and goes for more cinematic shocks. As a result, this is a rather more low key affair than the better known recent version, aiming for a gradual creepiness than outright horror. There is only one, rather ineffective moment where the Woman in Black becomes a malevolent and upfront figure of horror rather than a haunting presence, a scene that director Herbert Wise, unfortunately, fluffs by allowing it to be too brightly lit and too long.
As such, the story is more realistic but perhaps less effective as a horror film for audiences raised on high-octane shockers. It is deliberately subtle and aims to be creepy rather than terrifying and explicit. As such, it fits well with Nigel Kneale’s other horror works. Although best known for his science fiction dramas such as the Quatermass series, Kneale had written several supernatural stories such as The Stone Tape in 1972 and the mid-Seventies TV anthology Beasts. The Woman in Black differs from these by being a period piece, but there is certainly a sense of connection between the works – the idea of ghosts being ‘recordings’ of the past that were explored in The Stone Tape seems to be again at play with the constantly replayed ‘recording’ on the tragedy on the marshes that is central here.
While this version of The Woman in Black seems destined to remain the most obscure adaptation, lost behind the 2012 film, the stage play and the original novel and currently unavailable from legal sources, it is nevertheless an interesting variant on the story that anyone who enjoyed the newer film – or admires the novel – would certainly find worth their while.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA
It goes without saying that now it has been remastered in high-definition, The Woman in Black has never looked this good. The blacks are blacker and there is added depth in every scene, particularly the gloomy interiors. That said, the grass outside the church seems a tad too bright. There is the option to watch the film in 16×9 or as it would have been on TV cropped to 4:3 including the title cards where ad breaks were in the original broadcast.
The real bonus is a hugely entertaining and informative audio commentary moderated by novelist-film critic Kim Newman with the participation of writer-actor Mark Gatiss and writer-actor Andy Nyman, the latter of whom appears in the movie itself in his first TV role. Whilst obviously commenting on The Woman in Black as it unfolds onscreen (particularly the locations and set designs), these three wise men wholeheartedly enthuse about its production, where they were when it was originally broadcast on Christmas Eve 1989, the “sheer economy of Nigel Kneale’s writing” and his other work, director Herbert Wise’s career (he is best known for BBC series I, Claudius and The Lovers! sitcom spin-off), working with veteran actor David Ryall, the differences in Susan Hill’s novel, the stage play and the 2012 Hammer adaptation, ghost stories on British television and a plethora of related matters. At one point Andy Nyman even declares: “One of the greatest jump scares ever filmed!”It is a fascinating commentary and so much so that it was worth repeating, which can’t be said about most of these things.
Adrian J Smith, MOVIES and MANIA
“The Woman in Black is a seminal story, and this shot-on-film version is probably the best to date. With commendable restraint and taste, The Woman in Black elevates the material while staying true to the ancient roots of the genre.” Film Authority
“The most horrific element of The Woman in Black is that Jennet’s trauma turns her deathly spirit upon all, even the truly innocent. By viewing the film through the binary of masculine and feminine behaviour it unveils a further level of meaning in Arthur’s journey and the sad conclusion it leads to. The Woman’s horrific cycle continues because no one is willing to truly confront the injustice at the heart of her desire to seek revenge.” Horrified
“Thanks to solid performances, a superb adaptation by the legendary Nigel Kneale and Wise’s crisp direction on a presumably meager budget, this is one of the most underrated cinematic ghost stories out there, though the recent Hammer effort will hopefully raise some awareness.” Horror 101
“The film only turns out a couple of tepid scares with the appearances of the title figure (Pauline Moran). In its ventures inside said haunted house, this is a ghost story remarkably free of the spooky atmosphere one associates with a haunted house film.” Moria
“Together with an intentionally slow-moving atmosphere…and revealing itself methodically piece by piece, this film is a ghost tale of calculation as well as of spirit. The climax of The Woman in Black alone should assure its standing as a first-rate bone chiller.” The Terror Trap
Cast and characters:
Adrian Rawlins … Arthur Kidd
Bernard Hepton … Sam Toovey
David Daker … Josiah Freston
Pauline Moran … Woman in Black
David Ryall … Sweetman
Clare Holman … Stella Kidd
John Cater … Arnold Pepperell
John Franklyn-Robbins … Reverend Greet
Fiona Walker … Mrs Toovey
William Simons … John Keckwick
Robin Weaver … Bessie
Caroline John … Stella’s Mother
Joseph Upton … Eddie Kidd
Steven Mackintosh … Rolfe
Andy Nyman … Jackie (as Andrew Nyman)
Church of The Holy Cross, Sarratt, Hertfordshire, England
Lacock, Wiltshire, England
Lee International Studios, Wembley, London, England
Maldon, Essex, England
Quainton Railway Station, Quainton, Buckinghamshire, England
Aspect Ratio: 1.33: 1