Starring Adrian Rawlins, Pauline Moran, Bernard Hepton, and Andy Nyman
Written by: Nigel Kneale (screenwriter) and Susan Hill (novel)
Directed by Herbert Wise
In an era of dime-a-dozen horror films, it is a rare treat when a horror snob such as myself is genuinely horrified by one. In 2012, when Hammer Film Productions released their adaptation of Susan Hill’s book The Woman in Black, their version received a fair amount of buzz by merit of being a period, gothic horror film produced by Hammer and, of course, because it starred Daniel Radcliffe.
When the film came out, however, murmurings also materialized about another adaptation of the story which had been filmed for British television and released in 1989. It had been said that this version, with a screenplay by Nigel Kneale (Quatermass) and directed by Herbert Wise (I, Claudius), was brilliant in a way that far surpassed the respectable 2012 production. Thus, I tried to track it down — only to discover that it was one of those rare films that are only available in VHS format or on a DVD scan of the VHS tape for several hundred dollars. Thus, it remained elusive, attaining legendary status and staring at me, like a specter, from my Amazon wish list. I routinely stared back at it to see if the price had dropped. Alas, it never did.
Then the good folks at Network Restoration came along. Now, Blu-ray and DVD releases beckon to fans from the not-too-elusive release date of 10/12/20. Pre-orders are now being accepted HERE. While this is great news for British horror fans, any fans outside of the UK are either going to have to keep waiting or buy a Blu-ray player that is compatible with Region B Blu-rays and DVDs. That said, this US reviewer was provided a screener to let Region B fans know what’s coming and to let everyone else know what they will be missing.
In short, both the hype and the wait were worth it. This film is simply fabulous. While I can’t speak to the widescreen cinematography — my screener was in 1.33 aspect ratio — the video presentation allowed the muted look and dense atmosphere conjured by Michael Davis’s cinematography and Jon Bunker’s production design to draw me right into the narrative; additionally, the audio treatment allows for a very satisfying experience of the mix of Rachel Portman’s score, the dialogue, and a sound design with some memorably unnerving moments.
The story centers on a real-estate gig for lawyer Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins). Kidd travels to a small, seaside town to settle the estate of a recently deceased widow. From the moment he receives the assignment, uncanny vibes stealthily begin creeping into the life of our plucky hero. Eerie events and the superstitious attitudes of anyone who had come into contact with the late Alice Drablow (Pauline Moran) allow for a terrific buildup of atmosphere until several climactic incidents expertly grab hold of the viewer — as they do poor Mr. Kidd — and thoroughly thrash our sensibilities in a way that is simply not possible by any paint-by-numbers horror film producers that employ jump scares, gore, and horrifying images so liberally that they might as well have been trying to brush them off of their shoulders.
The expertly achieved effect is so satisfying and so disturbing that it is easy to say that this made for television movie is probably one of the greatest ghost films of all time; it is easily in my top five — right up there with The Innocents (1961), Kwaidan (1964), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Ugetsu (1953), and, actually, The Haunting (1963) and Carnival of Souls (1962) still need to duke it out for the final spot.
All of my reverence is echoed (and then some) in the presentation’s commentary track, which features Kim Newman (novelist/critic), Mark Gatiss (actor/writer/producer), and Andy Nyman (actor/writer/producer — and the sole commentator who was involved with the production [as an actor]). Throughout the course of their commentary, they offer thorough insight into the history of the story, its various incarnations, the production team, and the aspects that make this version so compelling. Additionally, they discuss the unlikely origin of this version as part of an antiquated Christmas Eve horror film tradition that was once a staple of British family television. The edition also includes a booklet with information about the production as well as a few incidental anecdotes.
Less is more in Herbert Wise and Nigel Kneale’s legendary adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. A slow atmospheric build yields scares reminiscent of those from the short stories which began the genre but which are rarely successfully adapted to film.