Film reviews

The Woman in Black (1989) – Film Review

It’s time to dip into some classic gothic horror with the adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black. No, not that shiny Hollywood version with Harry Potter in the lead role, this is the 1989 version produced by Central Independent Television for ITV over here in the UK and it’s got a shiny new release now courtesy of the folks at Network.

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The story follows young solicitor Arthur Kidd (Kipps in the original book), who is sent out to the remote coastal village of Crythin Gifford to settle the affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, who lived alone in a place called Eel Marsh House, accessible only by a single road along a tidal causeway which is itself only accessible at low tide. Stranger things are afoot fairly quickly, with Kidd repeatedly catching sight of a woman dressed all in black that the locals seem distinctly unwilling to discuss. The more time he spends in the house, the stranger things get, with weird, terrifying noises heard in the darkness and the fog, eventually culminating in Kidd’s collapse as he tries to comprehend and cope with the otherworldly events that plague this lonely, foreboding house.

The film has aged rather well, it has to be said. The acting and direction add to a palpable sense of dread and loneliness that permeates almost all the outdoor scenes. Adrian Rawlings does a fine job as Arthur, drawing the viewer with him as events spiral into the insane and terrifying. Bernard Hepton is on good form as local landowner Sam Toovey, who takes Arthur under his wing and both attempts to help and protect the young man while at the same time trying to dissuade him from lingering too long in the empty house. Then, of course, there’s Pauline Moran as the Woman herself. In some ways she doesn’t have a great deal to do for most of this production other than stand around and look ominous. It’s when she becomes an active participant in the scenes that she gets to show off what she’s capable of and it’s still a hair raising sight to behold.

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A tip of the cap to the folks at Network Distribution for another fine release when it comes to the restoration. It’s a thing of utter beauty. It looks like it was filmed last year, not 30+ years ago, every scene sharp as a pin, allowing the viewer to count the number of seams on Kidd’s shirt if they feel like it, or recoil in horror as the Woman makes another appearance. There have been subtle changes to the colour, this new version veering more towards blue compared to the yellow of the original recordings, especially noticeable when the Woman appears, her face far more pallid looking now. It’s a subtle thing, most noticeable in the indoor scenes but it’s nowhere near as heavy handed as some other high-def releases have been, which is a a relief. The sound quality is as good as the picture quality, and it feels like genuine love went into restoring this classic of British horror.

The physical release is accompanied by a booklet by Andrew Pixley who has published other works looking at retro British TV such as The Prisoner – A Complete Production Guide and The Avengers Files. The release also contains an audio commentary with horror writer/commentator Kim Newman, actor/author Mark Gatiss and Andy Nyman, who played the character of Jackie in the film itself. The commentary isn’t bad, but it’s a little on the dry side. Still, it’s always good to get commentary tracks these days.

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It’s good to be able to say that this 1989 version of The Woman in Black stands the test of time, remaining just as eerie and unsettling now as it was then. There are few jumpscares here, instead the horror comes through the camera work, sound and lighting which do most of the heavy lifting in terms of atmosphere, the Woman herself remaining an omnipresent but rarely seen threat.

While this version of the story is not entirely true to either the stageplay or the novel, it’s a strong adaptation in its own right and fans should definitely look this one up. Is it a must purchase? For any horror fans, it’s gotta be a yes.

The Woman in Black is out now on Blu-ray, exclusively from Network.

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