The Original Woman In Black

Of course, The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death is playing in theaters now. And so I decided this would be a good time to take a look back at the original. Not the 2012 Woman In Black starring Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe that Angel of Death is a direct sequel to, but the original 1989 version of The Woman In Black written by Nigel Kneale (best known for penning all the original Quatermass series, but also the vastly underrated Beasts and the BBC version of Nineteen Eighty-Four) for British television. The 2012 version is a remake of this 1989 version.
Both Woman In Black's are based on a short novel of the same name by Susan Hill, which was written just a few years prior to the first movie (1983). The 2012 film was rather successful, and the sole DVD release of the original is now long out of print and quite rare, so it's probably a safe guess that most readers would have only seen the remake. And, well, it might seem both snobbish and too obvious to say that the original is better, but it really is.
The Woman In Black is a subtle, spooky-rather-than-thrilling ghost story, about a solicitor who is sent to the home of a recently deceased woman to catalog her property to facilitate the sale of her estate. But things start to take a turn after he catches glimpses of a mysterious woman in black. Both versions of the film benefit greatly from having a quality novel as source material, lending the story substance and depth. As you might guess, the 1989 version benefits more by virtue of sticking a lot closer to it. I'm being careful not to drop any heavy spoilers here, but despite both versions being roughly the same length (95 mins vs 100 mins), the remake takes a solid three-act story and lops off the whole third act. The remake needed that time to force in a lot more jump scares and other creepy moments, which unfortunately tend to betray the logic and atmosphere of the story.
Don't get me wrong. The 2012 version is not a bad little movie. It's got a great look, Radcliffe is actually quite well cast as the lead, and it duplicates many of the original's biggest moments quite effectively (except it leaves out, curiously, the original's scariest, most infamous scene). And the fact that it changes the ending at least keeps audiences familiar with the original on their toes. I remember thinking towards the end: yeah, yeah, I know where this is going... only to suddenly realize: oh! No, I don't. But it definitely comes up short and if you've only seen the remake, you're missing out.
For one thing, this lack's Kneale's delicate touch. He has a great way, including a very subtle wit, of handling and humanizing even the most minor characters. If a character appears only in one scene to deliver a tiny bit of exposition, you still find yourself relating to him. Here, the townspeople in the first third of the film are broadly, ham-handily written. They're all ridiculously mean to Radcliffe on first meeting him (all doing the "Dracula's castle? Ah, you don't be wantin' to go there, me lad" schtick) tot he point where it's silly. It's arch and playing up the cliche, whereas the original townsfolk are all human, affable and sympathetic (which pays off later on in the story). The marsh and causeway locations, though nicely echoed in the remake, all play a much more important part of the story as well. There are some very strong echoes of Kneale's The Stone Tape here.
And this film also adds a bunch of business that just isn't very smart. The movie over explains the ghost, its abilities and its motives in order to cater to an audience that presumably demands everything be spelled out, but which ultimately winds up feeling less believable and especially less menacing. Again, I don't want to spoil anything, but the remake as a scene right in the prologue, before the opening credits. Children become possessed and driven to commit suicide... just like in the Mark Wahlberg film, The Happening; and you all know how well received that one was. All sorts of people are getting possessed in the remake, the ghost is floats around in CGI monster mode, and Radcliffe comes up with a big plan that just sucks all the plausibility out of the air.
You might say that the original's biggest drawback is budget. But thanks to the expert direction of Herbert Wise, it honestly doesn't need it. This movie uses real locations which are perfect and authentic. When the caretaker shows the solicitor how to use the electric generator out back, it's almost like we're getting a documentary tour of a historical landmark. And the ghost just appearing as a real, natural woman is not only more subtle, but actually fits the original story allowing it to go places the remake just can't.
I mentioned that this DVD is out of print and rare now, which is unfortunately true - not helped by Amazon's recent policy to reduce the number of third party sellers allowed to sell high priced DVDs, which removed a ton of listings for all rare titles. Expect to pay in the triple digits for this unless you get lucky. And it's the only version in existence.
If you thought the woman in black was scary, behold the woman with two noses and mouths!
As you can see from the screenshots, it doesn't look so great either. It was made for ITV, so the full-frame aspect ration is correct and fine. And admittedly, it wasn't exactly shot on 35mm, so even a billion dollar 4k restoration couldn't make it look like a Kubrick film on blu. But it could definitely look better than this. It's soft, fuzzy, and just barely superior to VHS. It has a ghosting issue in its vertical movement, as well, which I believe is a symptom of a sticky PAL to NTSC conversion. A reissue is absolutely in order, both to make it available again and to restore it. Some interviews or other features would be very welcome as well, as all this disc offers is a bonus trailer for the series Sharpe. But apparently the rights have been effectively squirreled away, so tracking this edition down is our only option. I can only say that, if you appreciate a good ghost story, it's worth the trouble.

No comments:

Post a Comment