A lawyer travels to a small seaside town to settle the estate of a recently deceased woman, but soon becomes ensnared in something much more sinister. (Now restored and available on blu-ray / DVD)
Read my accompanying article Who is the woman in black? And other stories for more (including spoilers).
The old house where young, untested solicitor Arthur Kidd is sent after the death of elderly occupant Alice Drablow is full of what Arthur dismissively calls “rubbish”, along with a few papers of interest and a phonograph.
The papers show that Alice and her husband had adopted a young boy, Nathaniel, who then died aged 6. The phonograph comes with several wax cylinder recordings by the widowed Alice, talking about the terrifying ghost she stares down each night: “I will not be feared of my own kin” she states. (Alice sounds like a particularly spirited and self-reliant septuagenarian.)
It’s a seductive combination, found footage meets traditional haunting: technology preserving Alice’s voice after her death, relating the visitations of a Victorian ghost.
Three decades after its Christmas Eve ITV premiere The Woman in Black is instantly gripping, but it’s also a richly intoxicating experience – the joy of sinking into a horror story so thoroughly frightening and so beautifully executed.
Nigel Kneale’s famously spine-tingling adaptation of Susan Hill’s gothic novella is also the perfect movie to cool you down on a hot night, with its supernatural chills and sea frets rolling in and out across the causeway.
And while it may be set in the 1920s, Eel Marsh House, the lonely, ugly pile where Arthur ends up, and its ghosts, are indeed resolutely Victorian.
The land on which the house sits is only accessible at low tide. Tidal islands possess a peculiarly British loneliness: the cold and damp, the claustrophobia, the feeling of being an outsider shut out of life, the tantalising daily links to the mainland which then disappear beneath a blanket of sea foam and mist.
It’s the perfect setting for a tale that straddles two worlds. Like the tides, a disaster is set to replay for eternity on the causeway, as a drowning child screams for his mummy. Meanwhile the lady in black herself (a now iconic Pauline Moran) can follow her victims back to where they should feel safe, travelling the road that links the dead to the living.
Arthur (Adrian Rawlins) has been sent by his boss Mr Sweetman to the village of Crythin Gifford on England’s north-east coast, to settle Alice’s affairs.
The villagers are taciturn about their local apparition, though the churchyard has a too-large contingent of children’s graves. No one wants to accompany Arthur to the big house though no one stops him going. Only local businessman Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton) is willing to help. “No I didn’t know her. I didn’t want to,” says the landlord to Arthur when he asks about Alice Drablow.
Before he even gets from village to house Arthur saves a young Roma girl from a falling cartload of logs, and you could say it’s an incident that will come back to haunt him.
Once ensconced in the house, Arthur is tormented by a vision of the same woman he saw at Alice’s funeral, though now she comes so close he can see her hate-filled expression. Grey-faced, in a black corseted dress and hat, she stands stiff among the sinking gravestones near the house before walking steadfastly towards him. Later, waiting in frightened desperation on the misty causeway for local man Ketwick to collect him, he thinks he can hear the pony and cart clattering towards him; but instead of Ketwick’s reassuring northern gruffness he hears the desperate screams and floundering of a drowning child.
Rawlins is terrific, as Arthur’s sojourn in Crythin Gifford takes him from sunny-natured boy to broken man, aware of evil in the world and cynical of other people’s machinations around it. You can see the growing fear on his face, the truth gnawing away at him as he switches from sceptic to believer. For once someone in a horror film behaves realistically when faced with a ghost: racing through Eel Marsh House putting on all the lights.
Hepton too is nuanced as the outwardly worldly Toovey. Damaged by what he’s experienced, he has no truck with anything more fanciful than the truth, which he knows is bad enough.
Initially, I felt the woman in black was far more frightening at a distance than close up; she didn’t exude the malevolence Arthur (and Alice) claimed for her. Director Herbert Wise had the last laugh though, as for several nights afterwards, downstairs alone, I was considerably more jumpy. Like the sand after a day at the beach, “she” gets everywhere. Watching it a second time, I suffered for my earlier hubris, as Arthur’s growing awareness that someone is behind him made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The music adds to the atmosphere of dread – Rachel Portman’s score is tremendously eerie and menacing.
At over 30 years old The Woman In Black holds up extremely well; the images and sound are beautifully clear thanks to the new restoration (it’s now available on blu-ray). It’s more about growing menace and chilly tension than jump scares anyway, though there is one – made all the more effective because it is unexpected.
What dates it (in a good way) is the length of many of the scenes, which go on for ages, extending the sense of rising dread and the length of the visitations. (It was made as a TV film, and still has the title cards where the ad breaks would have been, so you can enjoy the terrifying cliffhanger where it should be. You can imagine the brief respite for 1989 viewers offered by a cheery advert for Breville sandwich toasters or Gold Blend coffee.)
This is richly chilling storytelling. That all Arthur’s experiences could be put down to natural phenomena – screeching gulls, the sound-distorting mist, the loneliness and isolation of the tidal island – is quickly scotched.
When Toovey actually tries to suggest it could all be explained, like Sherlock Holmes explaining a mystery away to Watson he quickly gives up. He’s seen too much and he thinks Arthur should not be deliberately misled.
The focus is the triangle of the innocent Arthur, the wicked woman in black, and, with a foot in both camps, the knowing yet practical Toovey. Minor characters are solidly real, setting the scene in the village or bustling and noisy in London. Clare Holman provides bookend support as his wife Stella, at home with their two young children and terribly inefficient housemaid, Bessie. Andy Nyman in his first role, and Steven Mackintosh, play the two young clerks in Arthur’s firm.
There’s no motivation for the woman in black beyond the bare bones of her story, so it’s entirely based on how we spin it to ourselves. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for a woman forced to give up her child because of the mores of the day, though there’s a malevolence that outweighs the wrong done to her in life; a desire to destroy other families because hers was destroyed. It’s as if her overwhelming misery and rage has been distilled through death into something purely evil.
The Woman in Black is available on blu-ray exclusively from Networkonair.com from 10 August.
The film has been painstakingly-restored by Network’s award-winning in-house restoration team in high definition from original film elements. The blu-ray includes a new audio commentary with horror experts Mark Gatiss, Kim Newman and star Andy Nyman.
Read my (very spoilery) article: Who is the woman in black? And other stories
Watch the trailer below, and scroll down for a restored HD clip of the scene the funeral:
Restored scene the funeral: