Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Woman in Black (1989)

NetFlix N/A
IMDB 7.5/10
My Rating: 8/10

A young lawyer is sent to an isolated village to settle the affairs of a recently deceased woman, and finds the area haunted by a mysterious woman in black.

First up, this movie is available on DVD from Amazon but sadly, is not for rent on Netflix, so interested viewers will have to track down a purchasable copy.  That said, it is worth the effort for anyone who loves a good ghost story, because it's one of the best.  Based on the novel by Susan Hill, this is easily among my favorite ghost story films ever.  I review it here specifically with the knowledge that it's about to be remade in 2012 by the newly-reconstituted Hammer Films and given the track record of most modern remakes, I want to promote the original version as much as possible.

I am a huge fan of a good haunting movie.  My all-time favorite is The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, but others include The Changeling, The Legend of Hell House, The Ring, Haunted, and the more recent The Eclipse (reviewed by me here).  As a longtime fan of the classic British horror story, this was made just for me.  It's a slow moving, slow burning, gothic nightmare that builds gradually and without hurry to its horrific conclusion.

A young lawyer on the way up is given his "big assignment" - Travel to a remote village to settle the affairs of a regular client of his firm.  On arrival, he finds that the deceased woman had no friends among the locals and was generally regarded as mad.  The entire first half of the movie is all foreboding, and despite the 80's date it is straight out of a 40's ghost story complete with wary villagers, suspicious innkeeper, and plenty of conversation-stopping mentions of the dead lady in question.  Something is clearly amiss and our hero is eventually forced to relocate to the dead woman's isolated home on the coast, which is accessible only by a daily-flooded causeway.  As he investigates her house and records, he uncovers a terrible tale of tragedy and hate that puts him in fear for his sanity.

The recreated early 20th century sets are beautiful and not overdone, as so many modern remakes tend to be (Compare the disturbing and believable Hill House in the original The Haunting with the insipidly overblown funhouse sets of the 90's version).  Overall, it's a low budget film with more of a TV movie look than a feature film, but that works in its favor because it keeps the situation grounded.  The Woman in Black does not appear in swirls of smoke or staticky stutter-cam, she's just... there...

The low budget means we don't have gobs of FX weighing everything down, and like the best ghost stories, more is accomplished with an eerie sound in the night or a creaking door than with CGI monsters.  I'm virtually certain the upcoming remake is going to CGI the WIB into some sort of stretchy-faced demon, probably with long wet hair over her face, which will be distracting and pointless compared to the original WIB's relentless stare.  As our hero declares to a confidant, "I could just feel the most relentless hate coming off of her in waves." 

This is not a film for the attention deficit crowd.  It moves slowly and quietly, and it takes half the running time before the first odd occurrences are experienced.  It's a bit of a period drama this way, and fans of Jane Austen books and Wuthering Heights will feel right at home.  The Masterpiece Theater style also works well because it sets you up like a tourist at a table of card sharks - When THE SCENE comes, it will knock you for a loop. Yes, this is one of those rare movies with a "THE SCENE".  I noted with amusement that on the IMDB boards, everyone refers to THE SCENE and everyone who's seen the movie knows exactly what they're referring to.  Not a lot of films out there like that (Though again, I'd say 2009's The Eclipse also has at least two THE SCENEs in it that qualify).  It isn't gross, graphic, or violent, yet when this movie's THE SCENE hits, you'll want to crawl into the back of your couch.  Overall, The Woman in Black is the perfect fog-shrouded period ghost story, and the perfect way to kick off an Autumn season of spooky films.

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