A ghost, by definition, is an entity trapped between worlds. It’s of the ethereal, unnaturally clinging to the corporeal. The ghost story, fittingly, often falls between two worlds as well; a tradition in English literature, it had its heyday at the tail end of the Victorian Era into the Edwardian, when modernity and tradition met. So often, these relics in the contemporary world create eeriness, malevolence. Many fabulously chilling ghost stories have found their way from page to screen over the years, but perhaps the most terrifying of all is the 1989 TV film of The Woman in Black. It’s newly remaster in HD from Network Releasing and it’s a thing of horrifying splendor.
Though Susan Hill’s novel of The Woman in Black was written in 1983, its setting and tone feels like something from the 1920s. Such a hit was this novel that it became a stage play in 1987. ITV commissioned a television adaptation, to broadcast on Christmas Eve 1989. Much like the BBC’s prior M.R. James cycle, the ghost story at Christmas was a staple of English festivities. Tasked with writing duties for the TV film was Nigel Kneale. Kneale is a legend of genre TV and film, creating the influential Quatermass series (and subsequent Hammer Horror adaptations) and other spooky films like The Stone Tape. To direct was Herbert Wise, who helmed the landmark BBC miniseries I, Claudius in 1976.
If you’ve seen the 2012 Daniel Radcliffe movie of the same name, then you know the basic story of The Woman in Black. A young solicitor in London, post-WWI, must travel into the country to see to the affairs of the late Alice Drablow. A reclusive widow, she died alone in her massive home, Eel Marsh House. The young man, Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins), finds the townsfolk of the coastal village particularly standoffish. One of the few friendly faces is wealthy landowner Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton) who seems particularly troubled by Drablow and her family history.
In order to settle Drablow’s affairs, Mr. Kidd must travel to Eel Marsh House, across the treacherous Nine Lives Causeway, and go through all of the various papers and things she left behind. Right away, at the otherwise sparsely attended funeral, Mr. Kidd notices a black-clad woman mourning, though nobody else seems to pay her much mind. Once he arrives at the house, he sees the same woman standing amid the estate’s rundown marshy cemetery. This woman (Pauline Moran), as you might guess, is the titular Woman in Black, the vengeful spirit who presages a horrible fate for those who encounter her.
This film version of The Woman in Black does many things to set it apart from other ghost stories. First and foremost is the presence of the woman herself. Mr. Kidd sees the Woman several times prior to understanding who she is or what she represents. Rather than keep her hidden, or in shadow, the film shows her in wide shot, in broad (albeit gloomy) daylight. She’s a sinister figure from the start, but it’s only later, once we and Mr. Kidd understand the full breadth of what she represents, do we truly reel in horror. One particular moment at the end of the film’s second act is perhaps the scariest in a horror movie, ever.
Another of director Herbert Wise’s great tricks is to represent most of the apparitions via sound rather than sight. For as gorgeously gloomy as it looks, this was still a relatively inexpensive television production. He didn’t try to use camera trickery or video effects to achieve the scares; instead sound effects, either a whisper or a scream, fill the soundtrack, while Rawlins’ brilliant and believable performance conveys the requisite terror. The setting creates the atmosphere, and the sound (or simple lighting) creates the terror.
Kneale’s work always melded the scientific with the supernatural; The Stone Tape, broadcast at Christmas in 1972, featured a group of researchers trying to record the existence of ghosts in a purportedly haunted mansion. The stones of the manor themselves seem to amplify the wails of the restless spirits; perhaps a house is a record of the evils perpetrated within it?
The Woman in Black continues this idea to a degree, removing the modern recording equipment but another example of modernity amid the ancient. Mr. Kidd hears Alice Drablow’s voice in wax cylinders, describing the situations that created the Woman in Black in the first place. Her home, in the middle of the marsh, far from civilization, is both rundown and state-of-the-art. He’s surprised to learn upon arriving that the home has electric lighting via a generator out in the shed. It’s neither cold nor damp, though resting atop a marsh, it ought to be. These touches belie the evil we learn occurred on the grounds. No amount of creature comforts could keep the Woman from haunting Mrs. Drablow until her death.
And perhaps the most important touch in The Woman in Black, present in Hill’s novel and amped up in Kneale’s screenplay, is the motivation of the ghost. In traditional ghost stories, those of M.R. James and his ilk, the protagonist brought the ghostly terrors on himself, through greed or arrogance or other such vices. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the main characters’ fragile mental state allows the ghosts to permeate and infect. But here, our main character has done nothing wrong. He bears no ill intent, and is indeed a forthright and dutiful family man.
This only stands to make the Woman that much eviler. Mr. Kidd merely arrives to perform a simple task, and he bears the brunt of a curse he had no part in creating. We get the sense, even from early on, that every single person—from his boss to the randos in the town pub—know exactly what horrors will befall him, but they do nothing to warn him. It’s human indifference that created the Woman and allowed her to seek her spectral vengeance.
The Woman in Black was an impossibly successful hit in 1989. However, until now, it has been very hard to see via a proper release. Network has done a wonderful job with the presentation on Region B Blu-ray, in both its original 4×3 ratio and a widescreen format. The lone special feature is an audio commentary from author and critic Kim Newman, author and actor Mark Gatiss, and actor-director Andy Nyman. Between the three of them, there is no better group to talk about ghost stories. Newman is perhaps Britain’s preeminent horror scholar; Gatiss wrote and directed three Ghost Stories for Christmas as well as writing and producing Sherlock and Dracula; and Nyman co-wrote and co-directed the 2017 film Ghost Stories based on that cycle. Nyman also appears in The Woman in Black in a supporting role.
If you’ve never seen The Woman in Black, or only seen the 2012 Radcliffe version, you owe it to yourself to find this version. It’s an icy slow-build of a horror tale that peppers you with spookiness before absolutely hammering you with terror. It’s the perfect scary movie for a cool and quiet evening. But beware it’s not too quiet.
The worldwide Blu-ray debut of The Woman in Black is available exclusively from the Network website now.
Featured Image: Network Releasing