The Woman in Black 1989
The Woman In Black finally gets a restoration from Network, but what does Kira Comerford think about this previously unavailable ghost story classic?
For those who are fans of slow-burning psychological horrors, you could do a lot worse than Herbert Wise’s 1989 adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel, The Woman In Black.
It is a production that shows great self-restraint in many aspects, and this is something that adds to the general feeling of unease that one feels as the film unfolds. However, for those, like myself, who prefer a little less subtlety, you may be left feeling as if it never quite reaches the heights it teases at many points throughout.
The story follows Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins), a lawyer who is dispatched to the small seaside town of Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of a recently deceased woman, only to be caught up in some altogether more sinister goings-on.
One of the first things that struck me as the opening credits of the film flashed up on the screen was the score. It was definitely haunting, with a vibe that wouldn’t have been out of place in a period murder mystery, though one of the darker varieties. You really got a sense there were dire circumstances surrounding the death of this particular client purely because of the atmosphere the music created. It set the tone straight away and was a constant reminder throughout that this was in no way a fairytale.
The setting certainly backed up this notion. As I was watching the film I couldn’t help but think about how perfect the English seaside is as the setting for a ghostly horror story. It’s very dull and dank when the sun isn’t out; the coast is so much more exposed to the elements and it truly is the site of so many tragedies in harsh conditions. What we see here demonstrates what an ideal location it can be for horror. It was desolate, with very little life and more shades of grey than my eyes could process. Pair this with the howling winds – a steady presence whenever the story moved to the old house by the sea – and things begin to look and sound very grim indeed.
Of course, there was more to Crythin Gifford than just the location itself. Like with any small town, the people who inhabited it were just as interesting and certainly added to the sense that there was something off about this whole affair. The character this description fitted best was Mr Sam Toovey, played by Bernard Hepton. He first appeared when Arthur was on a train to the town, and instantly came across as this all-seeing, all-knowing oracle who, despite being friendly enough, did have something of an intimidating presence. Compare this to Arthur, who was every bit the big city boy lost in a little village, and a very stark contrast could be drawn. This was yet another element that added to the general sense of dread that was an undertone throughout the film, but never really amounted to anything of significance.
One thing The Woman In Black does very well is playing with the viewer’s imagination. It really leaned into the idea of letting you hear and feel more than you could actually see, and I believe it was at its most effective when operating in that area. There is a scene on the marshes by the big house that perfectly encapsulates this, and you can hear everything in so much detail that you don’t need pictures because everything that you can imagine is so clear, and probably far worse than could actually be created on-screen. The film also brought back all of those feelings of unease that being home alone as a kid entailed – everything seemed much worse whenever Arthur was on his own in the big house, especially at night, and that was rather uncomfortable for someone like me who doesn’t have a huge fondness of the dark.
However, for all of the good things that this film had going for it, I can’t help but feel like it missed the mark that would have made it great. There was so much suspense bubbling away under the surface, but for me, it never reached a boiling point. There was always something missing, almost as if the film burned itself out en route to its destination. What’s more disappointing about this is it left me feeling cheated, and almost undid everything that I did actually really like about the film, which is a real shame because there are some really solid foundations for what could’ve been a fantastic little ghost story.
All in all, The Woman In Black is not bad as far as ghost stories go. It certainly knows how to build tension by using everything at its disposal and manages to create a general feeling of anxiety that sticks around over the course of the film. It just lacks bite, which means it may struggle to find its place in the memories of more hardcore viewers. However, if ghosts and psychological horror are your thing, it’s still worth a watch – just don’t expect it to be an instant favourite because, whilst decent, it’s not the greatest of its kind.