Written by Elizabeth Bishop

The Woman in Black was the first adaptation of the novel written by Susan Hill in 1983. The TV-film was directed by Herbert Wise and written by Nigel Kneale. It premiered on Christmas Eve, 1989 on ITV alongside a limited VHS release. Now, Network Distribution are releasing this beautiful restored and remastered high-definition version to Blu-Ray for the first time ever. 

The story focuses on Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins – Harry Potter, Chernobyl) a junior solicitor who is tasked with travelling to a small village by the name of Crythin Gifford to settle the affairs of recently deceased Alice Drablow, a 72 year old widower and owner or Eel Marsh House. Arthur is sent to stay in the house for a week, and finds that it lays beyond a causeway which can only be crossed at low tide. 

During his time in the house, Arthur starts to hear strange noises, witness things moving of their own accord, and starts to question his sanity when he feels he is no longer alone. As he delves into the history of the house, what he finds is both heart-breaking and terrifying. 

Many of us will know The Woman in Black from the Daniel Radcliffe version released in 2012, so admittedly its hard not to compare the two. I remembered the basic plotline from the 2012 version, however I didn’t remember feeling the tragedy of the story quite as strongly as in this version. 

I couldn’t help but feel for Arthur almost immediately, he was a jovial family man, who appeared to be quite unfocused and messy. The staff below him saw him as a friend and the staff above him reprimanded him for his appearance and for not taking himself seriously. They made comments on their distaste for him having a wife and children so early in his career.

The Woman In Black 1989 horror TV film adaptation review

The film is quite slow, and takes its time getting to the real scares, but does introduce you to a variety of characters who all allude to something strange and mysterious about Mrs Drablow. As the story moves on and Arthur finds himself in the house investigating and sorting through her belongings, one of the things I loved is the use of sound. At the beginning you can hear the constant mewing of the seagulls, and the reverberation of the sea is almost relaxing. However, as the film moves on, so begins a constant onslaught of noises which all build and build with the tension of Arthur’s discoveries. Between clocks chiming, dogs barking, horses trotting, children screaming, and the incredible high-pitched strings in the score, you really do start to feel like you are losing your mind with him.

There is some mediocre jump scares in the film, and I appreciate that they aren’t all cheap musical-sting jump scares where you know that something is coming. The practical and make-up effects leave a lot to be desired, but as this was a TV movie made in the 80’s it can kind of be forgiven. In comparison to the 2012 version though, this doesn’t quite pack enough of a punch or provide the chill down your spine that you hope for going into a ghost story.  

Despite it being labelled a horror, I found the story way more sad than scary. It reminded me a lot of The Haunting of Hill House (if you haven’t watched it, you must!), with themes of family tragedy, heartbreak and loss. There is even a family of supporting characters in The Woman in Black whose storyline is almost exactly the same as the family of supporting characters in Hill House. But ultimately the main similarity was that I connected with, and cared immediately for, both sets of characters and wanted so badly for them all to get a happy ending.

The Woman In Black 1989 horror TV film adaptation review

If you are familiar with The Woman in Black, you will most likely agree that the ending is the most memorable, and grim, part of the story. That is definitely the case here, and I would say that this is where they have the Daniel Radcliffe version beat. I won’t give anything away, but it was truly the most unsettling part of the whole film for me – perfectly executed and chilling to the core. When the credits finally rolled I was left feeling desolate.

Overall, The Woman in Black isn’t the scariest film I have ever seen, but it does stand its ground in a decade overrun by American slashers, serial killers and zombies. This little made-for-TV British horror about sorrow and revenge is still recognised as a classic, making tonnes of ‘best of’ lists and living fondly in the memories of a whole generation of frightened viewers. Its not hard to see why.

Verdict: 2 out of 5

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