Is there anything better than an old school British ghost story? Probably not. They really do it best. In 1983 Susan Hill published an incredibly Gothic ghost novella called The Woman in Black that surrounds a ghostly woman that haunts an English town. It has been adapted into a stage play by Stephen Mallatratt and is the second longest running play in the history of the West End. It was also made into a blockbuster film in 2012 starring Daniel Radcliffe. And then in 2014 a sequel was put out, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death.
The 2012 adaptation is absolutely a lot of fun and filled with Gothic imagery of the mist covered moor and a decrepit old mansion. BUT…I want to talk about the 1989 made-for-TV British version. It was first broadcast on ITV on Christmas Eve in 1989 and was a huge success. But it was only re-run once in 1994 on Channel 4. It was released on VHS but has never been made available on DVD.
It was adapted by Nigel Kneale who has a great history in Hammer Horror and directed by Herbert Wise who made a career out of TV and made-for-TV movies. It’s hard to find and rarely talked about BUT you can watch it on YouTube and bask in this glorious old school movie.
We follow Arthur Kidd, played by Adrian Rawlins, who is sent to attend to the funeral of his client Mrs. Drablow. He is tasked with dealing with her estate in the middle of nowhere and getting the property ready for sale.
At the funeral there’s no mourners except for Arthur, a local solicitor and a mysterious woman in black. When he mentions her, the solicitor Mr. Pepperall, played by John Cater, is not thrilled. The house is incredibly isolated and is actually cut off by high tides for most of the day. When Arthur arrives, he sees the woman in black again and it’s absolutely terrifying. She stands there just staring at him as the mist swirls around her feet. The woman is played by Pauline Moran. As Arthur begins to investigate into this house and this mysterious woman he learns about a family tragedy.
In a terrifying moment, he stands outside in the mist and hears screaming and a child crying and some sort of accident. We realize it was a horse and buggy that must have crashed somehow in the marshes, killing everyone inside. Arthur keeps hearing this terrifying audio when he steps into the marshes. And it’s very cleverly done. Because Arthur just stands there looking horrified as all around him is screaming and crying and horses freaking out. It genuinely makes the hair on the back your neck stand up.
He then learns about the curse of the woman in black. She was the woman that died in the marshes after kidnapping her own son from her family and fleeing. Her sister, the woman who owned the house, took her son to raise him when the woman in black couldn’t. The woman in black became desperate when Mrs. Drablow wouldn’t allow her to contact him, hence the kidnapping. Now her spirit haunts the house and it’s rumored that when her spirit is seen, a child will die.
The 2012 film of course overplays all of this and makes it quite a jump scare feast. The ghosts are seen frequently and lots of things in the house are moving on their own. That doesn’t really happen in this version. It’s an interesting slow burn with only small moments of horror. But those small moments are very well done and do strike fear.
At the end of the film, Arthur is boating on the lake and sees the woman in black standing on the water. It’s a very terrifying image that I think works well. While the ending of the 2012 film is a lot more shocking and jarring, this one’s ending still works because of that final image.
It’s a great little flick that holds up very well and I hope more people will watch it now it’s available on YouTube.