Genre: Supernatural Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.
Release Date: December 24th, 1989 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Herbert Wise Actors: Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton, David Daker, Pauline Moran, Clare Holman, John Cater, William Simons, Fiona Walker
rthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins), a young attorney hoping for an eventual partnership with the respectable firm that employs him, is assigned a weeklong project in a market town, Crythin Gifford, on the coast of England. He’s to handle the death of Morgan Drablow’s widow, by attending the funeral, sorting out the family’s papers and effects, and putting the empty house up for sale. Kidd arrives in Gifford and meets wealthy landowner Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton), an elderly man offering his services for anything Kidd might need, and Arnold Pepperell (John Cater), a lawyer willing to aid with the legal duties, except when it comes to the journey to Eel Marsh House, where the reclusive newly departed resided.
Before Kidd traverses the unfriendly “Nine Lives” causeway to the estate, he spies a single mourner at the funeral, a woman dressed in dark attire, who mysteriously appears and disappears throughout the ceremony. The following morning, John Keckwick (William Simons) is commissioned to transport Kidd to the property, which due to the tide, is completely cut off from the rest of the town during most of the day. Arthur is set to be entirely isolated in the massive mansion. And his situation worsens when he continues to see the ghostly black-garbed matron, who is intent on welcoming him with a serious haunting (with a couple of very noteworthy scares – the hotel sequence is utterly petrifying).
The initial premise isn’t immediately threatening or hair-raising. Scenes of Kidd’s wife and children, their nanny, a train ride, checking into a room, and observing the bustling market day in Gifford all transpire with little cause for alarm. There is a sense of foreboding when Lady Alice Drablow is mentioned, and it’s clear that the townsfolk didn’t much care to know her. Various acquaintances speaking ill of Eel Marsh House leads to a bit of consternation, but it isn’t until viewers are shown the actual grounds and their frightening location that the notion of supernatural horror becomes apparent.
What really makes “The Woman in Black” unnerving is the film’s fearlessness in showing the antagonist in broad daylight – and the lack of reasoning or definitions when it comes to what the ghost is capable of. When Arthur is first dropped off at Eel Marsh House, he sees the swollen, reddish-eyed apparition quite clearly, approaching him with devilish intent. Realistically, he doesn’t stop to chat, but immediately runs indoors and turns on all the lights. After that, the film makes audiences wait for some time before seeing her again. But the seed has been planted – just knowing that she could turn up at any moment is terrifying. There’s also a rather lengthy bit of falling action, which stretches out the anticipation. Arthur’s insistence (perhaps bravery?) on isolation is similarly intimidating.
Eerie noises, the deafening sounds of a horse and carriage accident in the marsh with a child screaming, dense sea fog, spooky recordings of the widow’s last days in the dwelling, and a companion dog named Spider (given to Arthur by Sam, which adds to the frights by barking and wandering off into unexplored corridors), all amplify the suspense and striking atmosphere. A mystery also unfolds, as Kidd tries to figure out who exactly the phantom is, why she plagues the acreage, and how Crythin Gifford is involved. But this isn’t thoroughly involving, with most details given away through uncomplicated explanations – Kidd’s seeming paranoia and mental deterioration replace much of the question-answering, along with a morbid, unexpected conclusion that mirrors the horrifying nature of the novel, by Susan Hill, on which this TV movie is based. “The Woman in Black” went on to receive four BAFTA nominations, has remained remarkably obscure on home video, and was remade by Hammer Films (with Daniel Radcliffe starring) in 2012.
– Mike Massie