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The Woman in Black 1989 ****

Writer Nigel Kneale is one of the obsessions of this blog; after landing with a splash with his fabled Quatermass trilogy for television, later adapted for film, he ploughed a unique furrow of psychological horror. His disturbing Beasts tv series is highlighted elsewhere on this website, but it’s been a tough gig laying hands on his 1989 version of Susan Hill’s bestselling ghost story. Of course, The Woman in Black was a sizable hit movie for Hammer in 2012, but this beautifully restored HD DVD reissue version is a lot more faithful to the book, while also reflecting some of the key themes featured in Kneale’s work.

The set-up is familiar; ambitious lawyer Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) is asked to close-up the estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, and heads to the remote Eel Marsh House to carry out his duties. At her funeral, he spots a solitary woman watching in the distance, and is haunted by the figure as he begins to catalogue her possessions; does local Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton) know more about the apparition than he’s telling?

It’s notable that Kidd’s investigation of the house, which takes up a good half hour of the later film, is much shorter here, and Kidd completes his mission and returns to London. Instead of jump scares, there’s a much more sober-minded tone, with the mist around the house seeming to reflect audio from a past tragedy, and old recording cylinders used to convey the voice of the deceased. This is much in line with Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit or The Stone Tapes, in which inanimate objects host some kind of paranormal phenomena, and Kneale gets to indulge his interest in how such phenomena afflict the senses of those who seek to uncover secrets.

Director Herbert Wise musters a handsome production here, originally shown on ITV on Christmas Eve to a huge audience, in the mood for a chilling ghost story. And The Woman in Black lives up to its reputation as a lost classic, rarely repeated, scarce on VHS, only pressed once on DVD some two decades ago. This restoration looks brand new, and captures the strength to late 80’s production values; an early accident in which Kidd rescues a child from falling lumber is alarming in its realism and sets up an unexpected climax. Fans of The Conjuring will also be amused to see the sinister children’s playroom, complete with a bouncing football; this is the source of a thousand classic tropes.

This is an essential purchase for fans of the classic ghost story, not least for a  commentary track featuring The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss and Andy Nyman (who also appears here), hosted by the venerable Kim Newman. A national treasure in the British horror field, Newman is also an excellent blogger of the most arcane cinema, and his insights into film are always valuable. (https://johnnyalucard.com/). Newman is quickly onto the way that Kidd is hapless in comparison with the other characters, who all know exactly what he’s getting into, and also spoke to Kneale before the show was released, so serves as an ideal guide here.

The Woman in Black is a seminal story, and this shot-on-film version is probably the best to date. With commendable restraint and taste, The Woman in Black elevates the material while staying true to the ancient roots of the genre.

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

https://thewomaninblack.networkonair.com/womaninblack

The Woman in Black BD 2D

 

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  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this, but I’ve read a few people praising it and I gather the restoration is really good – I’ve placed an order of the blu ray.

    Oh and thinking about bouncing balls and ghostly kids, I seem to recall Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby Kill! has a particularly creepy example.

  2. I’ve only seen the remake (and have to admit that I quite liked that one), but didn’t even realise at that time that it was a remake. Interesting! Thanks for sharing this, as usual: great post! 😊

    • I think there are four versions of this story. This is British tv, so carefully paced and with a mission to chill; it’s one for fans of supernatural stuff, so if you get a chance, take it!

      • I saw some movie with him in it (Horns, maybe?) and it was so out there that I haven’t looked at any other movies with him in it since. I feel bad for him, as he was a child actor and didn’t decide to get into the Biz himself.
        If I was him, I’d retire and become a recluse 😀

        • Absolutely, he’s had done well publicized issues, but could easily find another line of work; his choices have been pretty shocking!

          • In many ways, the titles and covers I’ve seen him in almost make it look like he’s choosing movies that are as diametrically opposed to the HP franchise as is possible.
            I just saw a cover on Prime the other day, “Arms Akimbo” where he’s got 2 guns, dripping blood and looking like a madman…

            • And there’s one where he plays a corpse. Putting HP behind him in one thing, but he needs to get someone better to read incoming scripts IMHO.

                • Woman in Black was his sole post HP success. He’s just chosen very silly films. Had better luck as a stage actor. I think people would turn out if he was in something good…

  3. Wow. I’d really like to see this if they’ve cleaned it up. I loved the fuzzy old version I saw. Has a couple of really great moments in it. Seemed to be channeling the spirit of The Innocents a bit.

    • They really have cleaned this up, it looks so good because they shot it on film, crisp and clear as day. The Innocents is a good point of reference, like a ghost story that mixes the genteel with sheer horror! Well worth a purchase…

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