With the recent passing of stalwart science fiction / horror scribe Nigel Kneale, it seems only appropriate to cover an unjustly hard-to-find title Mr. Kneale worked his unique sort of magic upon. Adapted by Kneale from Susan Hill’s 1983 novel and directed by Herbert Wise, The Woman in Black is a genuinely frightening, “old school” ghost story in the mold of tales told by M.R. James and Daphne Du Maurier.
Concerned as much with its characters’ own demons as it is with those prowling the foggy grounds surrounding Eel Marsh house, the quintessential creaky gothic home where much of the story is set, Woman deftly balances an almost unbearably tense atmosphere with fluid internal dynamics for its major players, all layered into spot-perfect ambience.
The low man on the totem pole at his accounting firm, young Arthur Kidd is charged against his will with the task of helping to inventory the home of a well-moneyed, recently deceased widow named Drablow in the isolated town of Crythin Gifford. Kidd finds himself instantly at odds with the town’s residents, a close-knit bunch who looked on the woman’s lavish home in Eel Marsh with suspicion. At the widow’s sparsely attended funeral a peculiar woman in a black dress watches from afar, taking particular note of Kidd himself. Whispers permeate about a malevolent child-murderess who once called the town home, and when Kidd saves a young child from certain death at a town market an otherworldly presence begins stalking him at Eel Marsh.
There’s nothing particularly new afoot in terms of narrative in The Woman in Black, but the precision with which the story unfolds helps render it fresh. The performances, especially that of Pauline Moran as the title phantom, are all nicely realized. There are several touches indicative of Kneale’s involvement throughout, including Drablow’s having used an early audio recording device and the house at Eel Marsh featuring electricity (a concept Kneale keenly uses to edge the film’s language toward more modern spook stories when things move from bad to worse for Kidd). The finale is exceptionally chilling, offering a dour coda revamped from the source material’s more upbeat clincher.
The Woman in Black comes to together so well on almost every level it’s a little shocking to consider how “under the radar” the film remains. From a technical standpoint there isn’t much to write home about but that’s no indictment. The cinematography is appropriate to the subject matter and does a fine job of conveying Crythin Grifford’s dinghy, working class roots, and its compositions take on nightmarishly claustrophobic proportions as the titular character invades the waking world. Make-up and practical effects garner little screen time, but again are extremely effective in context. Woman never suffers from its made for TV roots and, in terms of mise en scène, trumps many larger-scale ghost stories which have appeared in ensuing years.
The Woman in Black has seen two separate English-language releases – on VHS and DVD, both from Ontario-based BFS Entertainment, both now long out of print. Despite her misgivings about some of the ways in which her novel was reworked on its way to the small screen, Susan Hill was kind enough to respond to an email query in an effort to help clear up Woman’s home video status. Since being held by BFS, the rights to the project have been purchased twice over, and now rest with a major U.S. studio. A little digging pointed toward Universal being the current rights holder, with their mounting another filmed adaptation not outside the realm of possibility.
It’s tough to swallow that The Woman in Black, a title rightly held in very high regard by those fortunate enough to have seen it, offers no promise of a legitimate re-release in the near-term. If Uni is in fact sitting on the film’s rights in light of some as-of-yet unannounced reworking, they should know Woman is a gem many fans would gladly have in their collections, to say nothing of all those yet to experience its terrifically creepy charms. This is a title that deserves to be brought back in circulation, where it can send shivers down the collective spine of audiences both new and old.