Every Monday evening my parents and I would settle in by the fire, pour ourselves “a cuppa” and watch the featured Monday Night Mystery on PBS (I was a terribly cool kid, I know). One night my “actually” cool older brother made a rare appearance at our Monday night gathering and joined us to watch the 1989 made-for-TV British horror film they were showing called The Woman in Black. This was unexpected. What was even more unexpected was how scared shitless he was after viewing it. He, who snubbed my fascination with all things creepy with such disdain, was deeply unnerved by the end of the film. I had never seen him like that and I could not have been more delighted. So began my love affair with the original The Woman in Black.
The film was produced by Central Independent Television for the ITV Network. Based on the excellent novella by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black was a surprise hit when it aired on Christmas Eve in 1989.
The great horror author MR James, who essentially codified the modern English Ghost Story, once said of his characters “Let us see them going about their ordinary business undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment, let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.” This is exactly what The Woman in Black sets out to do; sneaking into the consciousness of the viewer long after the film is over, recalling that sinking sense of unease that underscores this little British gem.
Our protagonist Arthur Kidd is a young solicitor sent to a remote costal village of Crythin Gifford in Eastern England to settle the affairs of a reclusive widow, Mrs. Alice Drablow. The townsfolk are less than keen to discuss the late widow or her estate, the remote Eel Marsh House. Accessible only at low tide by the aptly named Nine Lives Causeway, young Mr. Kidd must face the old house and its secrets alone. Or so it would seem. When a mysterious woman clad in black starts making appearances about town, terrifying events ensue.
Far more effective than the 2012 remake, this version is devoid of jump scares, saturated filters and special effects. Instead, the production takes a more naturalistic approach, choosing to allow the inherently unnerving English countryside to create the sense of isolation and unease. The characters are more realistic, too, making their plight more relatable to the viewer. It’s no surprise the production was nominated for four BAFTA awards, including Best Design, Best Film Sound, Best Make Up and Best Original Television Music.
The soundscape is sparse, featuring only the madding screech of seabirds, the mysterious, terrifying clip-clop of a carriage and its occupants, and marvelous musical score of tight, dissonant strings. Long shots of empty hallways and grey-skied graveyards keep the viewer tense with anticipation. This creeping tone of unspecified foreboding is a constant hum thorough the film. Who would have thought the sound of a child’s bouncing ball and the panicked bark of a dog could be so terrifying. Don’t be surprised if you wake up in the night straining to hear the sounds outside your window or picking out the form of a shadow in the empty doorway.
Emily Klassen is a Toronto-based classical soprano and a screen actor. She gained international recognition for her operatic performance in the NBC series Hannibal. Emily is an avid fan of all things spooky, taking a keen interest in Victorian Gothic literature, supernatural films, shows and podcasts.
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