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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  1. TWIB is a masterlcass in how to tell a ghost story unlike say Darkness Falls wich is how not to. TWIB is a slice of true gothic horror which I now have on DVD.It gets played every year at Christmass along with Scrooge at least twice. Once for us and once for family and freinds who we would like to scare to death.It should not be watched first time around alone in the dark with a high wind outside howling itself into a storm otherwise you may damn near shit your self during That Scene and then afterwards at even the slightest sound like your central heating coming on. This is a guess and not based on personal experience of course.

  2. The great thing about The Scene is how it just goes ON and ON...
    The bad thing is that I can already envision how it will be handled in the remake this year, via a face-stretching CGI transform that totally distracts from any actual scariness. I fear the remake.

  3. Your review is spot-on.It would be impossible to top this great film with a scarier version. The long shot glimpses of TWIB are brilliantly staged.
    Way too disturbing for the kids who will make up the audiences for the new version. One for the kids, one for the adults. Everyone gets to shit themselves!

  4. Ha ha all this talk of shitting...although I must confess that I was virtually touching cloth during 'THE SCENE'!

  5. I love it just because there honestly aren't that many movies out there where you can just say, "THAT scene" and everyone will immediately know what you mean. So, how is THE SCENE handled in the new version? Is it equally effective? Or is it even there?

  6. Well! I went to see the new one and guess what? it just doesnt get anywhere near the quality of the 89 version. Its ok, you get your moneys worth but I dont know. Without getting bored to death with all the things i dont like about the new one lets just look at all the things I liked about our one. The 89 version has great characters built up by great dialouge that features chilling lines such as "..and did she see you? like ..I'm seeing you now? and how The Woman in black herself has become part of local folk law. This tale of ghostly revenge is set very well in the midst of the new age of rail travel, motor cars, electric light and recorded sound. We have a bright young man from the city who is very much part of this new enlightened world.. and yet.Yet we see the devil standing upright and clear in the light of day and then realise too late that in the end the lights will fail,new inventions of transport are no use in a world connected by thin mud roads on marshland and then ..then the darkness begins to fall. The new film has none of that!! will that do?

  7. I have mixed feelings about the new one. I have not seen it yet, but a lot of people have told me they saw it and liked it. It appears to have been a huge hit for the new Hammer studios, and for that I am glad, both because I want them to succeed and because I would welcome a return to classical, gothic-style horror in movies after the last ten years of torture porn. At the same time, I want them to make new classics, and not just make gaudier, FX-filled remakes of older properties.