January 10, 2012

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989) - the British TV adaption

Daniel Radcliffe's new movie is hotly anticipated. The Woman in Black is presented by the new incarnation of Hammer Productions, opening in cinemas February in the UK, US and most of Europe. But this isn't the first adaption of the story by any means...

Susan Hill's original novel was first published in 1983, then adapted as a British TV movie in 1989. In that same year, the stage play based on the book arrived in London's West End. The play has been running ever since, popular as a guaranteed spooky evening and turned a little-known ghost story into a huge success and a now a major movie.

The Woman In Black at The Fortune Theatre, London - website.

In readiness, I've revisited the TV version, which was released on DVD in the US in 2000, but now out of print...


Between the World Wars, a young lawyer travels to a remote seaside village to conclude the affairs of a recently deceased widow. But local people are afraid of the old lady's mansion and no-one else pays any attention to the distant figure in black that he sees everywhere...

ITV obviously wanted something pretty damned scary as their Christmas ghost story that year, it first played on Christmas Eve! It certainly has some genuine jolts, but not enough to sustain the feature-length running time. Many other scenes should really be scarier, but the haunting gets repetitive. The stranger's make-up doesn't work for me, either.

This is all despite a good cast headed by Adrian Rawlins (below) as the young lawyer. Considering that Daniel Radcliffe has taken this role in the new film, it's a strange coincidence that Rawlins has since been in several Harry Potter movies, as James Potter. Bernard Hepton is the biggest name but underused. I was delighted to see John Cater (Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter, The Abominable Dr Phibes) in a short fraught role.

The script should have been a good one, from Nigel Kneale, whose previous TV adaptions made him the obvious choice for this. The Woman In Black also echoes aspects of the haunting in his superb original script for The Stone Tape (1970).

The use of locations is impressive enough and the period-feeling is fairly good for TV, helped by being completely shot on film. But the key locations of the mansion and the causeway weren't nearly daunting enough, the backstory not clear enough to maximise the creeping fear.

Therefore I'm optimistic enough to say that the remake has plenty of room to really improve on a filmed adaption of this story.

According to the
Wikipedia entry (which has spoilers), the TV version was only shown twice before getting a limited VHS and DVD release. With a recent problem over licencing rights, this version is unlikely to be shown again or re-released.
That leaves the windblasted field completely clear for the Daniel Radcliffe version...


  1. Got a counter-opinion for you-

    Sorry you didn't enjoy it, but WiB is one of my favorites. I love the period feel and the slow moving nature of the story - I felt it really helped sell the authenticity of the surrounds and the history. It felt like a ghost story as told by Merchant Ivory, to me. I am really not looking forward to the remake because I fear that everything will be overblown... I can easily see "The SCENE" being ruined by a CGI stretchy-faced ghost FX, for instance. YMMV!

  2. I think the best time have watched it was that Christmas Eve in 1989. But both times I've watched it, it's not quite grabbed me. Whereas THE STONE TAPE impressed me on many levels. There are 'moments' but there should be many more, and I'm hoping the new movie seizes the opportunities, though I agree it certainly shouldn't be overblown.
    Also, it's a shame that this version can't be more widely seen, considering the potential interest generated by the play and the movie.

  3. I think women in black is going to be the best scary movie ever.i love daniel radcliffe.i own a website danradcliffe fansite and a blog of him Daniel Radcliffe fansite

  4. The backstory of the 1989 TV movie is changed somewhat from the book and the play, and you need to pay pretty close attention to find out what those changes are. Suffice to say that the main difference is to do with how The Woman In Black perished, and it's a pretty successful explanation of the difference in her appearance.

    Having experienced the TV, play and book version of the story, I have to say that the TV version is a successful adaptation, and it certainly gave me jolts in all the right places!

  5. You can purchase the 1989 BBC version from silveragemovies.com for 12.99 plus shipping. I watched it this evening and saw the Danial Radcliff version in the theater this afternoon. Both are excellent, both are scary. The new movies obviously has much better production values. And does tell basically the same story.

    The new film is not a disaster like the Liam Neison version of the Haunting from a couple of years ago. Both the old and new are great Ghost stories well told.
    frank Calidonna