The Woman in Black

Color, 1989, 100m.
Directed by Herbert Wise
Starring Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton

Anyone The Woman in Blackwho claims old-fashioned ghost stories can't scare anymore would be well advised to take a look at The Woman in Black, unquestionably one of the most frightening films ever made for television - or any medium, for that matter. Steeped right to its core in a palpable sense of dread and inescapable doom, this is psychological terror at its finest and makes more widely hailed attempts at "suggestive horror" look ridiculous by comparison.

In 1920s London, mild mannered solicitor and family man Arthur Kidd (Rawlins) is sent by his firm to handle the estate of a late client, one Alice Drablow. When he arrives at the small town near the isolated moor estate of Ms. Drablow, Arthur stops to save a young gypsy girl from certain death by a wooden cart and is confronted with the unnerving sight of a woman in black standing in the street, glaring malevolently at him with red-rimmed eyes. That night, miles away from any other human beings, Arthur settles into the Drablow house and goes through the personal effects. However, he has also incurred the wrath of the ghostly woman in black, who intends to pay Arthur back for the life he stole from her. And when he steps outside and looks at the empty moor, he repeatedly hears the horrifying sound of a horse carriage crashing, following by a child's hysterical screaming... What follows is not for those who intend to have a good night's sleep.

Exquisitely written (by Quatermass author Nigel Neale, from Susan Hill's novel), scored (by Rachel Portman), and directed (by British miniseries vet Herbert Wise), The Woman in Black begins with a deceptively slow first act detailing Arthur's metropolitan lifestyle and the nature of his job. However, once the ghost story begins, the story relentlessly jangles the viewer's nerves with diabolical precision. The entire sequence with Kidd terrorized in the Drablow home is frightening enough, but the story then moves to a third act that turns the screws even tighter. In particular, one scene delivers such a blood-freezing jolt that only the stoniest viewer will be able to continue with the lights off. Really... it's that creepy. The novel was also adapted as a successful British stage play a few years later and reportedly is an equally traumatic experience. Extremely difficult to track down on VHS, The Woman in Black has never managed to earn the reputation it deserves but will hopefully enjoy more word of mouth on DVD. The presentation from BFS looks as good as possible given the source material; the opening scenes were shot with a hazy, orange hue that looks intentionally soft. The rest of the film looks much sharper than the VHS edition, with some mild grain and scratchiness in the source material evident from time to time. The mono soundtrack can be played through both front channels, a smart move given the expansive and creepy nature of the music and sound effects. It may not be a demo piece, but every horror fan should check this one out. Grab some popcorn, turn down the lights... and try to make it through the night.