Review: The Woman in Black (1989)
Nigel Kneale's adaptation of Susan Hill's novel makes its worldwide Blu-ray debut
Written by Martin Parsons
Young solicitor Arthur Kidd is sent to the misty town of Crythin Gifford to deal with the estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. Visiting her isolated house, Kidd quickly learns that Mrs Drablow was haunted by a very sinister presence and soon he too becomes a target of the vengeful woman in black.
The Woman in Black has had success in many guises. Susan Hill's original 1983 novel is a beautifully written, mean-spirited ghost story which is unforgettably bleak. The long-running play uses the trappings of theatre to add new chilly dimensions, while the 2012 feature film was a surprisingly effective, albeit neutered, adaptation. Another version has long been hidden away, coveted by genre fans and available only on dodgy discs and Youtube rips. Herbert Wise's 1989 TV movie adaptation, scripted by the legendary Nigel Kneale has never had an official UK release, so its arrival on Blu-ray is big news. Whether or not the film's status as a lost classic had anything to do with Susan Hill taking against it is unclear, but Nigel Kneale actually makes very few changes to the story, mainly slight tweaks. His influence is mostly apparent in a truly chilling sequence of scenes in which Kidd listens to wax cylinder recordings made by Mrs Drablow, where you get a sense of Kneale's keen interest in the imprints that traumatic events leave behind, a recurring theme in his supernatural work. There's only one slight slip at the conclusion of Kneale's adaptation which, while not vastly different from Hill's story, loses the discomforting sense of loss that makes the ending of the novel so memorably harrowing. Adrian Rawlins is excellent as Arthur, his fresh-faced enthusiasm slowly shifting into incomprehension and then sheer terror. The supporting cast are strong too, with Bernard Hepton and Fiona Walker in particular subtly heartbreaking as grieving parents. The woman in black, with her 'dreadful, mad hunger', is played with palpable menace by Pauline Moran, a world away from her most famous role as Poirot's spaced-out secretary Miss Lemon. Much of the strength of the film lies in its simplicity. The titular figure does not look like a monster; she looks like a bitter, sick woman. The terror comes not through her appearance but through her mere presence, her baleful aura expressed through a dash of greasepaint and Moran's deathly glare. Cries echoing across an empty landscape, a dog barking at a locked door, a child's ball bouncing in an empty nursery, ceiling lights swinging in the wake of an unseen presence: all the classic tropes of the ghost story are rolled out, but the chilling music and Wise's deft direction - never insistent, never cheap - revive them into visceral, almost primal jolts. The film's one, rightfully revered jump scare works very much because of its incongruity with the slow-burning unease elsewhere. For this scene alone, so simple in its execution, such a cliché, yet for all that so utterly chilling, this film is unmissable.
• Feature version in full widescreen
• Limited edition, specially designed o-card packaging
• Audio commentary with horror experts Mark Gatiss, Kim Newman and star Andy Nyman
• Image gallery
• Booklet by Andrew Pixley
The worldwide Blu-ray debut of The Woman in Black is available exclusively from the Network website on 10 August
Director: Herbert Wise
Screenwriter: Nigel Kneale
Cast: Adrian Rawlins, Pauline Moran, Bernard Hepton
Distributor: Network Distributing
Running Time: 102 minutes