Monday 10 August 2020

Dark Eyes Retrovision #23: The Woman in Black (UK 1989: Dir Herbert Wise)

Christmas Eve, 1989: Sunday night, and at 9.30 UK viewers tuned to ITV - 'the people's channel' - for a traditional ghost story. Older TV watchers would recognise this as a return to a televisual seasonal treat once offered up by the BBC via their regular Lawrence Gordon-Clark helmed 'Ghost Stories for Christmas,' which ran between 1971 and 1978, although on original broadcast only one of those, 1972's A Warning to the Curious, had actually been broadcast on 24th December.

Herbert Wise's telefilm was an adaptation of a book of the same name written by Susan Hill and originally published in 1983. The original print of the novella (it ran to 160 pages) was presented as looking a bit like a children's book, including illustrations by John Lawrence, a noted artist whose work was used in books aimed at younger readers. Inside the text was anything but.

While the book sold well and consistently, it rose again in the greater public conscience after a stage adaptation transferred to the West End in January of 1989 (it has since gone on to be the second longest running production in London after 'The Mouse Trap'). But the play's fame was not at that time established, and so the screening of the Wise adaptation wasn't accompanied by much fanfare: it sort of crept onto TV screens, capturing many unawares.

With a screenplay by Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale (who had some experience of the seasonal ghost story in his scripting of the 1972 BBC play The Stone Tape, directed by Peter Sasdy and broadcast on the evening of Christmas Day) whose adaptation follows Hill's novella fairly closely, The Woman in Black is a what would now be referred to as a slow burn piece.

Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins), a young solicitor from London, is asked by his firm to travel to Crythin Gifford in the north East of England, to settle the estate of the late Alice Drablow including her property, Eel Marsh House, which is situated at the end of a coastal causeway which becomes cutoff at high tide.

Once in the village, Kidd becomes aware that the residents of Crythin Gifford refuse to talk about Mrs Drablow or her house. At her sparsely attended funeral, he sees a gaunt woman, wearing widow's weeds, standing at the back of the church, although she disappears when he steals another look at her. The woman is again seen in the graveyard; she looks both emaciated and intensely angry.

Pauline Moran as The Woman in Black
Kidd is driven to Eel Marsh House by local driver Keckwick (William Simons) and, on his initial inspection of the property, discovers a photograph of someone who looks just like the strange woman he has seen. After returning to the house, this time armed with a protective dog, Spider, given to him by local landowner Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton), Kidd hears the terrifying sound of a pony and trap falling into the water, and a child and woman screaming; fearful that people have been hurt, when the mist which has suddenly surrounded the house clears, he realises that they were phantom noises; it's a scene aurally - and eerily - replayed a number of times while at the house. Kidd is convinced that he's witnessing supernatural events; and so gradually, while sorting through the house's belongings (including an abandoned nursery) he pieces together the story about Mrs Drablow, her sister and a boy born out of wedlock, and the woman in black who haunts the area.

I've never regarded Nigel Kneale as a particularly strong writer of dialogue, and saw his strength in stories and concepts more than characters. But here his script gradually layers pieces of the story on top of each other and delays the sight of the supernatural entity for as long as possible. Combined with the carefully dressed sets and a handful of UK character actors who may not have much time on screen but provide important local colour to the story ("thumbnail sketches of strangeness" is how Mark Gatiss refers to them on the Blu Ray's commentary track), Wise's film is a superbly photographed exercise in tension and restraint, which closes like a vice around the unwitting solicitor Kidd.

Of course anyone who has heard of this adaptation (as opposed to the 2012 Hammer version with Daniel Radcliffe as the solicitor) will probably be aware of a certain scene listed by most horror/supernatural fans as one of the most frightening things seen on TV ever: and they're not wrong. But without giving away any details, the scene also demonstrates that the ghost is not tied to the house (a fact made clear in the film's final moments) and becomes more and more vengeful as the story progresses. But each sighting of the spectre is separately alarming, the early ones more so for being in broad daylight.

This stunning new transfer of the film, unavailable for many years as a result of a perfect storm of prosaic reasons rather than, as thought for many years, being suppressed by Hill because she didn't like it (she didn't at the time, but has warmed to it since apparently), is much better than any previous official (or unofficial) release, and certainly an improvement on seeing it on a 16" screen, my medium for the first watch in 1989. It's a remarkable piece, from a director not known for working in this genre: and, yes, it's truly terrifying.

The worldwide Blu-ray debut of The Woman in Black is available exclusively from the Network website on 10 August.

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