The Horror of the Intimate Camera:
The Woman in Black
Why does The Woman In Black (1989) continue to cast a terrifying ghostly shadow over viewers more than 30 years after its first broadcast?
There’s a strange and disturbing intimacy about The Woman In Black, the Herbert Wise 1989 television movie that’s built up a following among horror fans over the last thirty-odd years.
As Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins), young London solicitor, arrives in the remote seaside village of Crythin Gifford, we viewers are right there with him, glancing nervously over our shoulders, knowing almost from the start that there’s something deeply wrong about the place. This is because Wise shoots this film like a voyeur, with shot-after-shot emphasising Arthur’s complete inadequacy for dealing with the task he’s been set upon and — what’s worse — making us realise we wouldn’t do any better in his place.
The villagers keep giving Arthur — and us — the side-eye whenever he mentions the recently departed Mrs. Drablow or her isolated house on the marshes that he’s supposed to clear out and sell. Wise’s expert camera makes Arthur our avatar as we move through the quiet, chilly horrors of Crythin Gifford, sinking as if in quicksand into an immersive tale of hapless villagers haunted by a monstrous evil. The villagers ‘keep calm and carry on’ — quintessentially British — even though they’ve been terrorised for decades by a vengeful spectre who hates their children. This is the mysterious woman in black (Pauline Moran); she’s a ghost all right, but she doesn’t look like one. She’s not floaty or ethereal — she’s as solid as an onyx tombstone, and she emanates malice and hatred from every bustle of her black Victorian mourning costume. We dread seeing her, but she actually appears in only five scenes across the entire running time. Part of the genius of the script is that NOT seeing her is almost scarier. We viewers hold our breath, certain she’ll appear in some cleverly constructed red-herring-esque scene, but it doesn’t happen — most of the time. When it does, Katie bar the door!
The script is ingenious, adapted by Nigel Kneale (The Stone Tape; Quatermass and the Pit; Beasts) from Susan Hill’s 1983 best-selling novel. In Neale’s (and Wise’s) experienced hands, most of the horror in this film is psychological — the best kind of horror. Seeing the woman in black casually appear in the background of some otherwise mundane composition is more terrifying than a thousand buckets of slasher gore. Her presence is always accompanied by a high-pitched, piercing set of notes that sneak up on us like an ice pick to the back of the neck. This excellent musical creep-fest is composed by Rachel Portman, who would go on to score big-budget Hollywood films (Mona Lisa Smile; The Duchess.)
As Arthur listens to the cylinders, we eavesdrop on Mrs. Drablow’s own private hell as she recounts crucial information about the woman in black…
I’ve read the book and seen the 2012 Hammer remake with Daniel Radcliffe, but for me, this modestly-budgeted chiller is the best version of the story. Neale’s adaptation of Hill’s original plot is scarier and more complete. Unlike the novel, Neale gives the woman in black a solid reason to mount a vengeance campaign against Arthur; he thwarts her plan to kill a gypsy child by crushing her with a lorry load of tumbling logs. The best Kneale innovation, however, is the exposition from the grave in Mrs Drablow’s own quavery old voice, recorded on period-accurate Edison wax cylinders left behind in her study. As Arthur listens to the cylinders, we eavesdrop on Mrs Drablow’s own private hell as she recounts crucial information about the woman in black, interspersed with her grocery lists and musings about her paid helper, Keckwick. It’s a far more effective plot device than the old reading-from-a-found-diary trick.
The terror continues to build, frame-upon-frame, as Arthur tries to get to the bottom of what’s ailing Mrs Drablow’s eerie old house and Crythin Gifford in general. He has one friend, a local landowner named Sam Toovey, played brilliantly by Bernard Hepton. We breathe a collective sigh of relief whenever Sam appears because we sense that he’s the only person around who’s capable of dealing with the woman in black. We care about the Tooveys and Arthur and his growing family. We think of them as friends and neighbours — they don’t exist simply to provide cannon fodder for bloodthirsty horror fans, as in so many other, lesser films. It’s that disturbing intimacy again, the ‘you are there’ feeling that this film generates in spades.
Thanks to Sam, Arthur — and us the viewer — get a blessed reprieve from the woman in black’s relentless pursuit. But the reprieve is only temporary. Her final appearance and its ensuing result are jaw-droppingly cruel. Suffice to say, Wise and Kneale pull no punches just because Arthur is a devoted family man with adorable children. Those of us who’ve come to care for the characters — because we’ve become so immersed in their lives — will leave the film shell-shocked.
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