Most people know of the 2012 feature film The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe. It was based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name. But the novel first found its way on to film through an ITV production that first aired on Christmas Eve 1989.
This widely loved film has not been well distributed. It was releases as a PAL VHS and later on a Region 1 DVD. Both these versions are long out of print although you can still find them. Thankfully, ITV has released the film as it should be on a Region B/2 Blu-ray. I was lucky enough to get a copy from the first printing. They have already run out and are doing a second run.
The Woman in Black is a Gothic ghost story. The central character is Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) — a young lawyer in 1920s London. He has a wife and two small children. His boss sends him out of town to settle the affairs of a recently deceased woman.
Once he arrives, he gets odd reactions from the locals. But no one tells him anything specific. Few people have even met her, since she was a recluse. One woman does show up at the funeral, but he is never able to talk to her.
At the house, he sees the same woman. But this time, he’s terrified. And when she approaches him, he runs into the house and locks the door. Then he turns on every light in the house and has a look around. Except for one room that is locked that will later be a major part of the plot.
He finds an old audio recording device and learns from the former owner that she is visited often by some unnamed woman. “Last night, she did not come until four in the morning. Then it was bad — a bad night.”
Eventually, he learns that owner adopted her younger sister’s bastard son. One day, the younger sister came back and kidnapped the boy. But they were both killed will traveling through the marsh away from the house. Now, whenever the ghost of the sister is seen in town, a child dies due to accident or illness.
The Ending — Briefly
Kidd has many terrifying experiences before a total breakdown. Eventually back in London, his assistant tells him that a woman who dressed as though she were in mourning was hanging around outside the office. This sets Kidd off again and he destroys much of his office in an effort to burn the last of the deceased woman’s things.
Later, Kidd takes his family on holiday. They are in a boat on a lake. The woman in black appears and a large tree falls on the family’s boat — killing them all.
The ending doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that the ghost was known for causing the deaths of children. In the book, the protagonist doesn’t die — just his wife and child.
But I don’t think this much matters. It does finish out the plot in a fulfilling way. And all things considered, I’d rather be dead than haunted by this woman.
Otherwise, this film exemplifies what is best about horror. Even as I write this — having watched the film 5 times recently — I have chills. It doesn’t have many jump scares. It’s just the whole feel of the film. It’s overwhelming.
A big part of its success is due to the character of Arthur Kidd and how he is played by Adrian Rawlins. He’s likable and believable. He’s even a bit goofy at times like when he discovers the recording device. So everything he goes through really matters to me.
A Beautiful Film
It’s also a thoroughly well-made film. The sets are great. The exteriors are shot so as to edit well with the indoor shots. It’s also cleverly shot. A couple of stand-out moments are when the woman in black shows up at the house, she appears from nowhere during a single shot. Then, at the end, after she appears and the tree starts to fall, Kidd’s wife rises up in the boat to obscure the woman’s body.
It’s nice to see such care taken in a film. But it’s wonderful when it results in such effective storytelling.
The first time I saw this film was with a terrible YouTube print — probably not even as good as the original VHS release. But the film was shot on 16 mm negative with well-lighted sets. So I knew better video was possible.
There are two versions offered on this disc. There is the original 4:3 televised version and a 1.78:1 widescreen version. Both show some grain on the scenes with less light. And it can be a bit more pronounced on the widescreen version. But overall, the film looks great. And that’s especially true for the scenes that are most important.
The 4:3 version includes title cards between the acts, as the film appeared on television. These are removed for the 1.78:1 version so that it plays as it would in a movie theater.
The sound is presented in mono, but it is well mixed. The music and voices are distinct. It also includes clear and accurate subtitles.
There aren’t that many extras with this disc. But I often think releases provide a lot of useless extras just to impress people. Seven short interviews are better than one long feature that puts them together in some cohesive way? Not really.
Apart from the widescreen version of the film, which is an extra I suppose, there are three extras.
This is a minor feature. It consists of 34 images displayed over the course of one minute and 35 seconds. Some are rather good but this is nothing special.
Commentary tracks range from excellent to useless to abusive. The track for The Woman in Black is good. It is hosted by writer Kim Newman. With him is Mark Gatiss of Sherlock fame. Both of them love the film and much of the commentary is simply them commenting on things they appreciate in the film.
For example, they note that what makes the big jump scare work so well is that slightly before we see her, we see her shadow cast on Kidd’s body. It’s the sort of thing you feel but don’t usually notice consciously.
They also discuss various aspects of the novel and how the film got made.
Andy Nyman is also included. He played Jack, the shorter law office assistant with curly brown hair. He adds some colorful stories to the mix.
For me, the high-point of the extras was a little 20-page booklet, The Woman in Black: Viewing Notes by Andrew Pixley. It goes through the original book, the play, this film, and the later one. It also goes into depth about Nigel Kneale and his approach to rendering it for the screen.
I highly recommend reading this book. You will learn some of it with the commentary. But if you want to know about how this film got to screen, you should really start here.
The Other Booklet
Along with the Blu-ray came a 24-page booklet The Woman in Black. It appears to have been some kind of promotional material for the film when it was released in 1989 — a press book for the media. There are even corrections on it. The first page says it will show at 9:35, but this is crossed out in red pen and “9:30” is written under it.
It provides basic information about the plot, characters, cast, and crew. But mostly, it contains short interviews with cast members Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton, David Daker, and Pauline Moran. These are the sort of interviews that would today be extras on the disc.
But I don’t think it is officially part of the Blu-ray release. The booklet is too large to fit inside the case and it isn’t mentioned on the case. So you might get it or you might not.
I’m pleased to have this. The film is great and it rewards multiple views. It’s also a film you can show to older friends and family members since it is classic horror. It is, however, scary. I just showed it to my Stephen King-loving father and he was impressed — and frightened.
Sadly, it is only available on a Region B/2 disc. But if this gets you to buy an all-region Blu-ray player, great! I purchased it directly from Network on Air for just $21.23. The total shipping charge was less than what Amazon charges and it got here in a week! So they are a company you can trust (and I have absolutely no business relationship with them).
This is a fitting release for an excellent film.
Blu-ray image taken from Network on Air under Fair Use.