Director: Herbert Wise
By Roderick Heath
I vividly recall the first time I saw this initial adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1982 novel. It was in high school, on one of those afternoons where for whatever reason we had no class. A substitute teacher stuck a VHS tape grabbed from the English staff room in the video to give us something to do with our eyes and less to do with our mouths. The film took its time getting our attention, but when it did, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a room full of teenagers go quite so quiet before or since. The Woman in Black is one of the few truly successful examples of pure mood-piece horror made in the past quarter century, all the more admirable for being a telemovie, made with the no-nonsense sense of functional craft that distinguished British television for so many years. The title is a deliberate play on Wilkie Collins’ famous Victorian-era mystery novel The Woman in White, as Hill’s narrative portrays the gnawing legacy of oppressive generational values and resurgent maternal vengeance roaring out from beyond the grave in the most insidious and crazed of guises, and the act of burrowing into forbidden enigmas only stirs the grimmest of retaliations.
The cult affection for both novel and telemovie has only grown over the years. Now there’s a new feature film version on the way, starring Daniel Radcliffe, and it’s amusing to note that Radcliffe’s role is played in the original by his on-screen Harry Potter father, Adrian Rawlins. The screenplay for the ’89 version was composed by Nigel Kneale, and whilst he took liberties with Hill’s work, he had practically written the book on how to intrigue and scare the hell out of TV audiences with his Quatermass serials and excellent telemovies like The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) and The Stone Tape (1972), and he confirmed here he had lost none of his touch for weaving richly engaging supernatural mysteries. Set in the 1920s, The Woman in Black depicts a junior member of a London law firm, Arthur Kidd (Rawlins), a stolid but conscientious young professional pressured to take on the more fiddly, annoying, and time-consuming case work that stern senior partner Josiah Freston (David Daker) doesn’t deign to do, in spite of the fact that Arthur has a wife, Stella (Clare Holman), and two young children who take up all his spare time.
Arthur is thus easily compelled, for the sake of his career, to go to the seaside town of Crythin Gifford, to finalise the estate of a recently deceased woman, Alice Drablow. Upon arriving at the town, he soon begins perceiving odd phenomena. At the old lady’s funeral, Arthur observes only one mourner apart from himself and local solicitor Keckwick (William Simons), being a woman dressed in black, gazing balefully from the back of the church, and across the graveyard outside from amongst the tombstones. When Arthur tries to alert Keckwick to this, the solicitor refuses to look at her. Everyone, even the avuncular local landowner Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton) whom Arthur struck up a friendship with on the train from London, seems uneasy when he mentions Marsh House, Drablow’s home, which is perched on the far end of a long, perilous causeway stretching across a tidal plain. Amidst the tumult of the town’s market day, a young gypsy girl is pinned and injured when a load of wood falls off a cart: Arthur dashes in and snatches her out of the road before she’s crushed by a huge log.
When he’s taken out to Alice’s residence, Marsh House, to begin organising her papers and readying the house for sale, Arthur encounters the black-clad woman again, in an old family plot abutting the house. She glares at him with a feverish intensity so suggestively malevolent that she scares Arthur into fleeing inside, bolting the doors, and turning on every light in the house. Soon after, he experiences a torturous aural manifestation that documents a heartrending event: the sound of a carriage crashing into the water off the causeway, and a young child and his mother screaming in panic as they sink to their deaths. He hears this repeatedly during his time at the house, to the point where he can’t distinguish its early passages from the sound of a real carriage coming over the causeway, a detail the film then exploits for all it’s worth. Returning to town, Arthur begins to perceive the way these seemingly distinct incidents are part of a pattern, permeating the locale and all its inhabitants, as he recognises that both Keckwick and Toovey share similar tragedies in their recent past, as do many others in the vicinity, in having lost young children in accidents or illness. Arthur’s intervening to save the gypsy girl now takes on a new slant, for he has snatched another intended victim of the curse out of harm’s way, but possibly to no good end. Against Toovey’s advice and his own good sense, Arthur decides to move into Marsh House to complete his work and to delve into the mystery, which, thanks to Alice Drablow’s cylinder recordings, he begins to realise is sourced in a tragic series of events that consumed members of Alice’s family. Alone overnight with Toovey’s dog Spider as his only company, Arthur is lured upstairs to a perpetually locked room by a thumping sound and seems to perceive another haunting presence, that of a small laughing boy who plants a tiny tin soldier in Arthur’s hand.
In spite of some formidable competition from the likes of The Haunting (1963), The Legend of Hell House (1973), and The Others (2001), this first version of The Woman in Black is, alongside The Shining (1981) quite simply, the best “haunting” movie ever made, outstripping all other rivals for concisely sketched mood and slow-mounting tension. It’s very much the made-for-TV modesty of it that makes it so indelible, with no temptations to indulge in showy camerawork or special effects to distort narrative essentials. It’s also all the better for rarely trying to overtly frighten, being much more about generating tension and eeriness, making the film’s few moments of urgency and shock brilliantly effective. The story develops some familiar themes, yet expected narrative pay-offs are forestalled, only to rush in when least expected, with maximum, disorienting impact. Director Herbert Wise was a veteran television director whose very first work, ironically, was a TV version of The Woman in White (1957), and whose credits since the mid-‘50s had included stand-out telemovies like I, Claudius (1976) and Skokie (1981).
Here, Wise conjures an exactly honed sense of atmosphere, in the bustle of the law offices and the small town, the domestic warmth of Arthur’s home life, and, eventually, the mood of desolate loneliness in the remote location of Marsh House, where he alternates between agoraphobia-inducing external spaces and claustrophobic interiors, and a tingling sense of threat pervades. The film was shot almost entirely on location, and the resulting three-dimensional realism quality it credibility. The woman’s appearances are often simply matters of cunning framing as the camera dollies back and forth, her spindly figure casually appearing in the rear of shots she wasn’t in a few seconds before. In one particularly excellent moment, the one that first truly makes Arthur understand he’s in a situation beyond his ken, sees Arthur, sensing an alien presence, abruptly feel the hairs on his neck stand up, and he whips about to glimpse the woman only a few feet away, glowering at him with what he describes as a kind of hunger turned to hate, possessed of radiating power.
The paraphernalia of the superlative ghost story is expertly laid out in both script and direction: the eerie visitations of the female wraith with her faintly greenish pallor and red-rimmed eyes burning with prosecutorial loathing; the remote haunted house; the omnipresent fogs sweeping over the death-trap causeway and mysterious noises thudding out during the night; the air of secrecy weighing upon the populace of the backwater; and, lurking behind it all, a powerful source of emotional anguish that drives the ghost in her relentless program of punishing the living for her loss. The use of sound as a particular source of torment is felicitous, in the overt disquiet of the accident anguish, and also in the sound of Alice’s voice on the cylinders, giving its own tantalisingly ghostly hints, of years spent being haunted by a malignant phantom, of fending off her hate and persecution in the night, every night, for half a century. Arthur is an exemplary hero, likeable, generous, a good father and hardworking, gutsy, intelligent man.
All his qualities don’t mean a thing, however, as he’s completely outmatched in his battle with the supernatural force he unwittingly challenges and is victimised by, even as he musters an uncommon determination and bravery in venturing back to Marsh House and trying to unravel the mystery. His failure to respect the tenuous balance of the situation, rather than beginning, as in most such stories, a journey towards finding resolution for it, sees Arthur instead place himself directly in the sights of the woman’s vengeance. Arthur is steadily worn down by his experiences to a pale, feverish, hysterical wreck, as his most charming traits, his love of children and ready empathy, prove to be magnets for the ghost’s most sadistic impulses. In the final phases of the story he’s so desperate to rid himself of the last totems of Marsh House that he haphazardly piles up papers retrieved from the house in his office and sets fire to them with paraffin, nearly incinerating the law firm in the process. He also almost strangles Freston, in realising that his boss sent him to Marsh House because Freston knew about the haunting and was absolutely terrified of it.
Hill’s story essentially transfers the Latin American folk figure of La Llorona, the inconsolable weeping mother of a lost child whose appearance forebodes death and disaster, to an English setting, and invests her with a specific, wilful destructive authority. As such it represents a dark antithesis to the Victorian cult of motherhood and industry, and Hill knew it very well. This meshes with Kneale’s familiar fascination for locations that have become deeply invested by malefic influence, without his usual interest in exploring the edges of scientific credulity, except that Arthur’s pronouncement that the repetition of the accident resembles a recording calls to mind that motif in The Stone Tape. Arthur does uncover the wraith’s identity: she was Alice’s sister Jennet, who had a child out of wedlock. Alice and her husband had adopted the boy to cover up the disgrace, leaving Jennet to become increasingly unhinged. Toovey recalls her wandering the streets in anguish when he was young, and he murmurs with acidic knowing when he fingers a photo of the Drablows and the adopted boy, “Happy families!”
The horrible accident which Arthur is forced to continuously listen to on the marsh occurred when Jennet tried to snatch back her child, and then crashed whilst fleeing. The locked room was actually the boy’s bedroom. The real sting of this event, which Arthur recognises, is the taunting ambiguity of the boy’s cries for his mother: nobody, neither the living nor the dead Jennet, can know if he was calling for her or Alice, and this is the real spur to her venomous haunting. Now she is a living embodiment of rage against Victorian familial pretensions and veils of hypocrisy and lies, still maintaining a reign of terror against all family happiness in the town even as the twentieth century is slowly penetrating its environs. Marsh House has an electrical generator which has an unpleasant habit of conking out at the most hair-raising moments: Arthur’s frantic efforts to get it going, his diligence in trying to keep the house’s lights blazing, and use of the recording device, all indicate a desperate belief that the trappings of the modern world can stave off the miasma of evil and exile the phantom of past wrongs.
As suggestive as the drama of The Woman in Black is, what makes it riveting is the watchmaker’s sense of form and bastard cunning with which Kneale and Wise make it work on screen. Equally vital is the creepy music score by Rachel Portman, long before she became an Oscar-winner. Drama and music work in perfect accord at a crucial moment when Arthur is confronted with disturbing manifestations in the boy’s bedroom, the generator fails, and his panic to get the power back on again is palpable as Portman’s shrieking Psycho-esque strings blare. The film’s most memorable sequence comes when Arthur has been brought back from the house and is sleeping in a hotel, seemingly having dodged the lurking threat, except that he awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of the boy’s laughter, the tin soldier under his pillow. Arthur sits up and tries to communicate with the spirit, only for Jennet to loom over him as a shrieking, fire-eyed demon, implacable in her otherworldly abhorrence for anyone presumptuous enough to enter her domain. The primal scream Arthur releases as she swoops down on him recalls many moments in Kneale’s oeuvre.
When one is well prepared for this moment, it’s delicious and a little campy, but coming out of nowhere as it does on a first viewing it’s genuinely chilling and surprising: otherwise stalwart adults have reported being terrified by it. Similarly powerful is the very finale, when Arthur and his wife and baby take a weekend sojourn in a rowboat. Arthur finally seems to be regaining some peace of mind, only to spy the wraith standing upon the lake surface, smiling with queasy triumph as a tree breaks and crashes down upon the family, racking up three more sacrifices for her unquenchable, perverted sense of justice. It’s as bleak as conclusions come, but The Woman in Black is relishable to its last frame precisely because, like the title character, it plays a merciless game with a showman’s sense of timing.