In 1983, Susan Black wrote a novella that followed closely the conventions of traditional Gothic horror. It concerns Arthur Kipps, a retired solicitor. Circumstances lead the man to recall a horrific series of events from his younger days, when he was sent to a village to close the legal affairs of a recently-deceased widow, Alice Drablow. While in the village, he sees an apparition of a woman dressed in black, and learns that locals are superstitious about the widow's remote, aging estate, Eel Marsh House. Gradually, he pieces together the story of the mysterious Woman in Black, the sight of whom supposedly presages the death of a child.1 Kipps tries to leave the experiences behind him, only to have it taint his own life.
The novella became the basis of a long running-play, and it has been twice adapted to film. The more recent adaptation stars Daniel Radcliffe, cinema's Harry Potter as the young solicitor; the earlier one, made for British television, features Adrian Rawlins, Harry's onscreen father, in the same role.
The 1989 adaptation takes place in 1925. The young solicitor, here called Arthur Kidd, heads to a village to settle the elderly widow's estate. The time-period-- with automobiles and telephones already common in London-- creates a sense that Kidd travels back in time when he visits the remote village, which has not entirely caught up with the modern world. The locals prove friendly, but they don't want to talk about Eel Marsh House, and they clearly feel sorry for the young man forced to handle this job. They tell him little, though he notices a conspicuous number of young deaths in the local cemetery. Gradually, he discovers a haunting that may threaten his sanity and his family. The film also gestures to another interpretation: Kidd may already be unstable; his mind may be more haunted than Eel Marsh House.
The film uses minimal visual effects. It relies heavily on the actors, setting, and (most significantly) sound to create horror, and does so effectively, creating a sense of plausible horror and dread. The film also makes effective use of location; I strongly suspect the fog is real. Pauline Moran, as the Woman in Black, creates a feeling of dread through a remarkably understated performance.
Much rides on the central performance; Rawlins appears in virtually every scene, often alone. He proves equal to the task, though some people may find portions of the film a little slow-moving. The other actors vary in quality; they're better than one might expect for an 1980s made-for-tv production, but not outstanding.
The novella's ending has been changed and, for me, the new conclusion really doesn't work, as much for the execution as the concept. Nevertheless, this Woman in Black packs a few frights, and it creates a lingering sense of doom and dread that the more recent version lacks, despite a more developed use of the horror movie bag of tricks.
The 2012 version sends a young Edwardian solicitor (the year is unclear, but sometime between 1910 and 1917) to a very different remote English village. Kipps here is a widower, and his status as a single father with a young son makes him immediately sympathetic. More is riding on his successful completion of the job; his work has been sub-par since his wife's death, and Eel Marsh House represents his last chance with the firm.
With its superior budget, this production can create its own sense of reality. The 1989 movie features a supernatural force invading a mundane, realistically-rendered backwater; the 2012 retelling presents a world as stylized as any Universal Monster Movie's, and includes the fearful, hostile villagers. The innkeeper does not want to let a room to Kipps. People block his way and shun him at every turn. Only a local, skeptical wealthy man will help him; he wants the villagers to overcome their archaic superstitions-- and he wants his wife, entranced by spiritualists, to come to terms with the death, years ago, of their son. Of course, we're in a world where the supernatural really does stalk the land. Kipps discovers a haunting that terrorizes the countryside. The Woman in Black actively takes children– the film shows us several disturbing deaths-- and Kipp's son may be next.
This adaptation features some disturbing imagery and ideas, but it eschews excessive gore, and relies heavily on ambiance and physical effects for most of its effect. The Woman in Black certainly isn't groundbreaking, but it features a number of low-level frights, and I found it a welcome relief from the trends that dominate contemporary horror. The film also makes a case for traditional effects; its weakest visuals involve CGI. Both versions of the film feature a nightmarish nursery scene; as with nearly everything else in the film, the 2012 nursery, stocked full of creepy old toys, goes entirely over the top. The Woman herself, of course, is a much more conventionally frightening spook, with ghostlike moment, monster's gaze, and banshee's shriek.
Radcliffe is onscreen most of the time, often alone, and he puts forth a strong performance. He still has to outgrow his identification with his most famous role. When Kipps faces down supernatural forces, I can't help but imagine him pulling out his magic wand and saying, Spiritus Evanesco or something like that. The plot mostly involves its lead running scared around a spooky house, developing a bafflingly strange method of exorcism, and bringing the story to a conclusion that really concludes nothing (a sequel is in the works). You may also want to take some wine with this changed ending; the film certainly supplies the cheese.
You will find little new in either Woman in Black, but both work well as a Gothic revivals with some genuinely disturbing elements, and the second, in particular, makes an entertaining haunted house experience.
Director: Robert Wise
Writers: Nigel Neale, from the novella by Susan Hill
Adrian Rawlins as Arthur Kidd
Bernard Hepton as Sam Toovey
Fiona Walker as Mrs. Toovey
David Daker as Josiah Freston
David Ryall as Sweetman
Clare Holman as Stella Kidd
John Cater as Arnold Pepperell
John Franklyn-Robbins as Reverend Greet
William Simons as John Keckwick
Joseph Upton as Eddie Kidd
Steven Mackintosh as Rolfe
Pauline Moran as the Woman in Black
Director: James Watkins
Writers: Jane Goldman, from the novella by Susan Hill.
Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps
Ciarán Hinds as Sam Daily
Janet McTeer as Mrs. Elizabeth Daily
Sophie Stuckey as Stella Kipps
Misha Handley as Joseph Kipps
Jessica Raine as Nanny
Roger Allam as Mr. Bentley
Lucy May Barker as Nursemaid
Shaun Dooley as Fisher
Mary Stockley as Mrs. Fisher
Daniel Cerqueira as Keckwick
Alisa Khazanova as Mrs. Drablow
Ashley Foster as Nathaniel Drablow
Sidney Johnston as Nicholas Daily
Liz White as the Woman in Black
1. Spoiler: the precise history of the Woman in Black varies slightly in the different versions. In each case, however, she is the deceased sister of the widow. Years earlier, she had a child out of wedlock, who was raised by her sister and her husband-- her circumstances made her, in the eyes of Victorian society, an unfit mother. The child later dies under unfortunate circumstances, and his birth mother kills herself. Her reason and method for killing the offspring of others varies from adaptation to adaptation.