Part I: The Woman in Black (TV 1989)
**Massive Spoilers alert**
The film follows Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor eager to advance within his firm. He agrees on behalf of his practice, to attend the funeral and sort through the effects of a recently deceased client – Mrs Drablow, of Eel Marsh House, Crythin Gifford.
The cinematography here is excellent, if minimalist; the words ‘stark’ and ‘windswept’ don’t begin to do it justice. The loneliness and isolation of Eel Marsh House and the insular nature of Crythin Gifford are captured perfectly.
After arriving in the isolated Norfolk town, it soon becomes apparent that all is not quite as it should be in Crythin Gifford.
A silent black clad woman attends Mrs Drablow’s funeral – the only other attendants being Arthur and the firm’s local representative, Mr Jerome. The latter refuses to acknowledge the woman’s presence, or even to look at her. Several disquieting occurrences involving local children serve to increase the tension.
There is something to be said for a film that has the temerity to show its ‘creature’ within the first quarter of the film. In addition to this she is shown in broad daylight and is, if anything, more disturbing for that. The everyday aspect of her arrival, the understated way in which she slips into frame, leaves the viewer wrong footed. Surely this cannot already be the eponymous she? This must be a false alarm. And yet, there she remains in the background. Silent. Ignored. Brooding.
We move quickly from the woman at the graveyard to the prospect of Eel Marsh House. I cannot think of another setting in film which achieves quite such a character of fearful malevolence. The house is situated amidst dangerous salt marshes and is accessible only via a causeway which is submerged beneath the tides twice a day – leaving Eel Marsh House stranded with its ruins, graveyard and ghosts.
The house is furnished with the familiar sounds, locked doors and temperamental electricity supply that you would expect from any self respecting haunted house. Here too we find the secret history which must be unwound – exquisitely supplied via crackling phonographic recordings of the recently deceased Mrs Drablow. And perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Eel Marsh House is that Mrs Drablow lived there so long, alone with its malevolent ghost and history.
It is in the graveyard and ruins of Eel Marsh House that Arthur next encounters the Woman in Black. This time the camera creeps ever closer. She wanders into shot like a shadow and we are drawn to her pale, malevolent face. Nothing more than a touch of black beneath the eyes and some pale powder – yet the actress imparts a truly chilling mix of cruelty and detachment with nothing more than a stern glare down the camera lens.
However, the film utilises sound to produce its most startling effects. The moment when Arthur first hears the ghostly screams of the child and pony plunging to their deaths in the icy grip of the salt marsh – and the woman’s long agonising cry – that truly stops the heart. Arthur stands helpless, staring into the thick fret that has swept in from the ocean, isolated, disorientated, alone.
I have already mentioned the recordings of Mrs Drablow – these add intrigue, hinting at the lonely and tormented of the widow – and also pathos. It is impossible not to wonder about this lonely old woman and to seek out the cause of her misery.
It is when Arthur chooses to isolate himself on the island – with only Spider (The Wonder Dog) for company – that the film becomes truly heart stopping. The moments when the generator cuts out and the nursery door finally opening are peaks in the relentless onslaught of tension. Then of course, there is the scene, the one everyone talks about, in Arthur’s bedroom at the Gifford Arms. I won’t spoil it.
Things get a bit silly in the penultimate act of the film and Arthur’s return to London feels unnecessary and directionless. But things come together perfectly for the final, chilling act of the film.
So, having watched this film perhaps half a dozen times (watching it at Christmas is something of a tradition – but Christmas and ghost stories is a topic for another post) I sat down to read the book.