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The Woman In Black (1989,UK)

11/02/2012

Director: Herbert Wise           Starring: Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton, Pauline Moran

Susan Hill’s 1983 novel about a haunted house and its accompanying malevolent spirit, the titular Woman In Black, has proved fertile fodder for adaptation. Reworked for the stage as a hugely popular play that has been running since it opened in 1989 it has also been the basis of a current movie from the recently resurrected Hammer Studios starring Daniel Radcliffe. This is not the first time it has been adapted for screen though. In 1989 Nigel “Quatermass” Kneale put his spin on the story for a TV movie. I’ve never read the book but I have a few disjointed memories of seeing the Kneale version on its original broadcast, the main thing I remember about it being that it gave my ten year old self the screaming heeby jeebies with its creepy atmospherics and its ghastly central character. That was a long time ago and I’ve become a jaded, cynical sceptic since then but before I see the new film I felt I owed it to myself to revisit the TV version to see if it did indeed deserve its reputation as a masterclass in creepiness.

Young solicitor Arthur Kipp (Rawlins) is sent to the coastal town of Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of a long time client of his law firm who has passed away.  While attempting to organise the deceased’s belongings in the remote and imposing Eel Marsh House he finds himself plagued by the apparition of a woman dressed in black and the echoes of tragic and traumatic events that transpired in the house years before. The townsfolk are cagey about the house and its dreadful legacy, so it is up to Kipp to try to piece together the truth in order to save his rapidly deteriorating sanity.

Twenty odd years on and I think it’s fair to say that The Woman In Black has lost a little bit of her edge. This is probably as much to do with me and two decades of desensitizing at the hands of mass media as it does with the film itself but (perhaps due to its TV origins) it feels a little bit dated in a way other old horror movies (The Haunting, Dead Of Night) don’t. That said, it still holds the power to instill a sense of unease in the viewer. The woman in black herself is, by modern standards, a rather unremarkable apparition, decidedly normal looking (in a Victorian sort of way) save for a deathly pallor and an intense, hate filled stare and yet is more than capable of giving you the shivers in a far more effective way than most of her twenty first century equivalents. The disturbances in Eeel Marsh House are essentially of a run of the mill haunted house type, all noises and banging and mysterious locked doors but it’s the tragedy behind them that probably lends them their power. All in all, the film is ripe with a feeling of deep, dark malice that it’s sort of difficult to put your finger on.

The phenomena are given extra power by Kipp’s reaction. He starts to lose his grip on reality and isn’t sure if he can believe his eyes and ears when faced with the hauntings. In an inspired scene he moves round the house from room to room, flicking on light switches before he tentatively enters in the hope that the electric lights of rational science will chase away the spectres and ghouls of the old house. His apprehension is palpable because we’ve all done it at one stage or another, been so unsettled by an experience that the thought of walking into the unknown of a darkened room is too much to bear (just me? oh well then…) and it’s a clever way to tap into that experience in order to heighten our sensitivity to the horrors unfolding for Kipp. I’ll even confess at one stage there was a definite, involuntary twitch at a well crafted jump scare that was followed by some serious goosebumps thanks to a particularly sinister moment.

I think that if it falls short anywhere it’s in the fact that it feels a little bit slight given the subject. At about a hundred minutes it feels like it could do with another half an hour or so to play with Kipp’s mind a little bit more and string him (and us) out for all he’s worth. His journey from sane sceptic to demented believer is a little bit too quick for my liking and I suspect the economy of time is a result of the fact it was made for TV but I think it would have benefitted from a slower boil. When you are unravelling a man’s sanity why rush?

That aside though, it holds its own after twenty odd years and remains far more sinister than the vast majority of contemporary horror cinema could ever hope to be. Relying on atmosphere, insinuation and suggestion for its potency (rather than crass shocks and gore) it’s easy to see why the story has remained a favourite among horror fans for so long and I’ll be interested to see what Hammer have managed to achieve with their new version. The 1989 version is a little bit tricky to find but for horror aficianados it is definitely worth seeking out, especially if you like your horror films to leave you with a vague sense of dread. It’s certainly hard to find anything as unsettling as this today.

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