Color, 1989, 102 mins. 18 secs. / 101 mins. 43 secs.
Directed by Herbert Wise
Starring Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton, Pauline Moran, David Daker, Clare Holman
Network (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), BFS (US R1 NTSC)
Anyone who claims traditional 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 one of the all-time great word of mouth fright films.
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 (Moran, a long way from her endearing role as Miss Lemon on Poirot) 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 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.
Extremely difficult to track down for years in the wake of its initial airing, The Woman in Black turned up on VHS (twice in the U.K., once in the U.S.) and then on DVD in the U.S. in 2000 from short-lived label BFS, which started commanding ridiculous amounts of money when it went out of circulation. The master looked okay but very modest for the period, with the source material looking a bit soft and scratched at times but watchable enough. No extras were included apart from a promo reel for the company's other releases. After that the film disappeared completely for years with rumors abounding about its suppression due to anything from Hill's displeasure with the adaptation (primarily for changing the gender of the dog) to the desire to keep it out of the public eye so the revived Hammer could keep attention on its lackluster 2012 version starring Daniel Radcliffe. (Weirdly, Rawlins would go on to play Radcliffe's late father in the Harry Potter films.)
As it turns out, that latter reason was closer to the truth as the film's split ownership didn't see a need to compete with that later version, which also changes the ending for the fourth time compared to the earlier film, book, and hit stage adaptation. It seemed like there was no chance the film would ever see the light of day again for a very long time, but finally in 2020, Network Releasing stepped up with a much-needed Blu-ray edition, first sold directly through their site as a limited slipcase edition with initial orders coming with a replica of the press book and an insert with extensive liner notes by Andrew Pixley. The new restoration from the 16mm negative looks superb with a drastic uptick in detail as well as much more impressive color timing that scrapes away that inconsistent yellow tinge that came and went on the older transfer. Interestingly, you get two viewing options here, and both are worth checking out. First is the standard 1.33:1 version we know and love, featuring a bit more image info visible than before and now featuring the original break bumpers every 22 minutes or so (once of which was famously placed right after that big scare). A nice duplication of the original broadcast experience, it reinstates the original broadcast pacing including some minor music and sound effects segues as well. Then there's a widescreen option, which has been newly created using additional peripheral image info on the original film elements so you get some substantial extra material while losing a bit vertically. This version also drops the Numbers, so the content is basically what we've seen on video before and runs a bit more than half a minute shorter. The LPCM English mono track sounds pristine either way, and optional English subtitles are included. In addition to an image gallery, the big extra here is a lively new audio commentary (only on the 1.33:1 broadcast version) by Kim Newman, Mark Gatiss, and Andy Nyman, who of course know their English ghost story history from the past century-plus inside and out and make for fine companions here. They talk quite a bit about Kneale, the book, its other permutations over the years, and the elements of the classic ghost story incorporated here as well as connections to other key works on British cinema and television. Grab some popcorn, turn down the lights... and try to make it through the night.
Network (Blu-ray) (1.33:1)
Network (Blu-ray) (1.78:1)
Updated review on August 23, 2020