The Woman in Black is a 1989 British TV movie, and is the first adaptation of the Susan Hill novel that is better known as the source for the hugely successful 2012 Hammer film. Interestingly, the screenplay is by Nigel Kneale, who of course had a long history with Hammer Films through the 1950s and 60s.
The story follows young solicitor Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins), who is sent to a small English market town to attend the funeral of client Mrs Drablow, and deal with her estate at the remote Eel Marsh House, readying the property for sale. It becomes clear that the old woman had no local friends, and only Kidd and Mr Pepperall (John Cater), a local solicitor attend the funeral – though Kidd sees a mysterious third mourner, a woman. However, mention of her sees to unnerve Pepperall.
Upon visiting the house – cut off by high tides for all but a few hours a day – Kidd soon begins to understand why the locals were so frightened, as the mysterious Woman in Black (Pauline Moran) seen at the funeral is seen again, and clearly seems to be a ghostly figure. Investigation of Mrs Drablow’s papers and wax cylinder recordings suggest a family tragedy, and he hears the ghostly sounds of a horse and buggy, along with its passengers, vanishing into the marshes.
Through Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton), a local landowner he met on the train up from London, Kidd hears of the curse of The Woman in Black – Mrs Drablow’s sister, Jennet Goss, had given birth to a son but was unable to raise him. The Drablows adopted the boy, but refused to allow his mother to ever reveal her true relationship to the child. Eventually, the desperate woman kidnapped the child, but was caught in the rising tides as she fled. Her ghost now haunts the house, and whenever she is seen, a local child will die soon afterwards…
The Woman in Black was first broadcast by ITV in the UK on Christmas Eve 1989. It was a popular and critical success, but has only been re-run once (in 1994, by Channel 4) and although released on VHS video has never been made available on DVD in the UK – a US DVD did appear but is long deleted. Oddly, no one seems to have thought to re-release it to cash in on the success of the more recent version.
Unlike the 2012 film, this version of the story stays fairly true to the original novel, save for a few curious changes – the dog Spider has been changed from female to male, the lead character’s name is changed from Kipp to Kidd, there is no phonograph in the novel (this change was presumably to help dramatise scenes of Kidd reading through paperwork) and there are several other small changes and one or two dramatic alterations towards the ending of the film. It is, however, much more of a faithful version of the story than the Hammer film, which makes a number of variations and goes for more cinematic shocks. As a result, this is a rather more low key affair than the better known recent version, aiming for a gradual creepiness than outright horror. There is only one, rather ineffective moment where the Woman in Black becomes a malevolent and upfront figure of horror rather than a haunting presence, a scene that director Herbert Wise unfortunately fluffs by allowing it to be too brightly lit and too long.
As such, the story is more realistic but perhaps less effective as a horror film for audiences raised on high-octane shockers. It is deliberately subtle and aims to be creepy rather than terrifying and explicit. As such, it fits well with Nigel Kneale’s other horror works. Although best known for his science fiction dramas such as the Quatermass series, Kneale had written several supernatural stories such as The Stone Tape in 1972 and the mid-Seventies TV anthology Beasts. The Woman in Black differs from these by being a period piece, but there is certainly a sense of connection between the works – the idea of ghosts being ‘recordings’ of the past that was explored in The Stone Tape seems to be again at play with the constantly replayed ‘recording’ on the tragedy on the marshes that is central here.
While this version of The Woman in Black seems destined to remain the most obscure adaptation, lost behind the 2012 film, the stage play and the original novel and currently unavailable from legal sources, it is nevertheless an interesting variant on the story that anyone who enjoyed the newer film – or admires the novel – would certainly find worth their while.