Woman in Black, The (1989)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2012-01-27 09:52

Written by: Susan Hill (book), Nigel Kneale
Directed by: Herbert Wise
Starring: Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton and David Daker

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

A spine-chilling ghost story.

When Daniel Radcliffe leaves the confines of Hogwarts to star in Hammer Films's The Woman in Black, it’ll actually be the second time Susan Hill’s novel has been adapted for the screen. The first instance came back in 1989, when someone at ITV in Britain thought it’d make for fine Christmas Eve programming. Apparently, it’s just not a British Christmas if ghosts aren’t involved in some way, so Brit-stalwart and Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale was commissioned to hammer out a script to be directed by TV veteran Herbert Wise, and the result is a stodgy, dull little number that suppresses its scares, trading them in for dull procedural.

Solicitor Arthur Kipps (Adrian Rawlins) finds himself at the center of a mystery when he’s sent off to the rural coast to tend to the estate of the recently-deceased Alice Drablow. Despite the wary looks and overt warnings from those he encounters, he presses on to the old woman’s huge mansion situated just beyond a dreary marshland. He even takes time to attend the old woman’s funeral, where the only other onlooker is a mysterious woman dressed in black (Pauline Moran). As he digs deeper into Drablow’s estate, he uncovers her family’s sordid history, which has become the stuff of local legend.

Eventually, he stumbles upon a ghost story, and The Woman in Black might be the most quaint ghost story with a casual, out-of-nowhere mean streak that I’ve seen in a while. Unfolding rather blandly and with production values that are maybe a step above Masterpiece Theater, we watch as Kipps shuffles through some papers and tries to coax information from the cryptic natives. Occasionally, he stumbles upon some eerie moments, such as when he gets trapped in a white noise of fog, seemingly surrounded by the tormented voices of children. The eponymous black-clad woman also crops up from time to time, usually off in the background in some nicely-placed moments that remind us that something creepy is in fact afoot. There seems to be a remarkable lack of dread otherwise, especially whenever we’re away from the house.

At one point, Kipps actually leaves for the city, and you almost can’t wait for him to get back. Once he returns, the film finally kicks in--everything else preceding it almost feels like padding, save for an incident that involves Kipps saving a gypsy child from being crushed by a log. This becomes a vital point once he finally returns to the house and is finally told the ghost story that’s haunted the area for decade. It involves fairly typical stuff--the woman he keeps seeing is actually a specter who once had a bastard child that was denied her. More interesting is how she’s continued to wreak havoc since her death by taking the town’s children, a wonderfully twisted conceit that seems like it should be at the forefront. I imagine the town should probably feel much more creepier than it is since it should be bereft of children; instead, there’s actually quite a bit of merriment early on when Kipps visits a pub. For a story driven by such gothic menace, it lacks an ominous foregrounding for its eventual scares during Kipps’ haunting (which is also marked by the usual parlor tricks--mysterious noises and objects, doors opening on their own, etc.)

It is difficult to deny what a fine, fog-shrouded set piece the Drablow mansion and its marshes are, as each is infused with the proper desolate dreariness. The film feels intentionally muted both in narrative propulsion and style, often trading in overt shocks for a creeping, unsettling terror. And there’s really nary a hair out of place with the production, especially for a television film--its sets are nicely designed, and the performances are fine. Just about everything hinges on Rawlins’s Kipps, who is appropriately wide-eyed and likable as a young father, a fact that you just know is going to come into play given the ghosts’ penchant for killing children. That’s what the final act is most concerned with, and I can at least say that The Woman in Black climaxes in a stunningly chilling moment; most ghost stories like this seem destined to end on a dark, rain-soaked night, but this one saves its scariest moment for broad daylight, where it thrives on the contrast between the sunniness and Moran's ominous, dark-eyed title character.

Some movies are a sum that are greater than its parts, but The Woman in Black is pretty much the opposite--I loved the final moment and that spooky old mansion. Everything else is a bit of a wash, and I’ll be interested to see what the Hammer take will do with it (the trailer already drips with a garish, gothic style that seems perfect for the material). Your mileage may vary--as I understand it, this is a rather beloved cult classic, but I don’t see anything here that couldn’t be mightily improved upon. At the end of the day, it never quite escapes its dowdy TV trappings, so a 21st century shine-up shouldn’t do much harm. Unfortunately, the film’s lone DVD release is well out of print and will require a lot of coin, so you’re probably better off tracking down a VHS tape--or waiting until it’s inevitably re-released to cash in on the new film. Perhaps the best option is to wait and see if it pops up to stream on Netflix; this is far from a bad film, but it’s a bit of a drag at times, certainly something that will play well when saved for a dreary night. Rent it!

comments powered by Disqus Ratings: