The Original Woman In Black, Restored

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.

Update 1/10/15 - 8/13/20: A few years later, it's great to see the original rise up and re-eclipse the remakes in the public eye with a beautiful new restoration from Network.  Although they've made a curious decision or two...
Both Woman In Blacks 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, while the sole DVD release of the original, a US disc from BFS Productions in 2000, 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 and 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 still, 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. In the remake, 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 gets downright 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 the 2012 version also adds a bunch of business that just isn't very smart. It 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 has 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. All sorts of people wind up getting possessed in the remake, the ghost floats around in CGI monster mode, and Radcliffe comes up with a big, overblown plan that just sucks all the plausibility out of the air.

You might guess that the original's biggest drawback is budget. But thanks to the expert direction of Herbert Wise, it honestly doesn't need it. The 1989 movie utilizes 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 no longer logically can.
Now, I mentioned that the BFS DVD is out of print and rare now; you could expect to pay in the triple digits for this unless you get particularly lucky.  But all of that is over now, thanks to Network.  Just this week, they've issued it on a new, remastered blu-ray in the UK, restored in 2k from the original 16mm negatives.  Curiously, they've created a 1.78:1 widescreen version, despite this being a famously fullscreen, made-for-TV movie.  But don't panic; they've also included the original broadcast 1.33:1 version, using the same 2k scan.
1) 2000 US BFS DVD top; 2) 2020 UK Network BD full; 3) 2020 UK Network BD.
As you can see above, the DVD is soft, fuzzy, washed out and just barely superior to VHS.  The colors have thick, sickly hues over most shots, and some kind of compression flaw is giving the image a weird wavy pattern, as if we're looking at the film through a scrim.  And I don't mean the interlacing, although yes, the DVD is also interlaced.  That's probably a symptom of a sticky PAL to NTSC conversion.  But before you ask how could it possibly be worse, we also have to address the aspect ratio.  Yes, it's supposed to be fullscreen like it is, but this is stretched vertically to a too tall 1.30:1, making everyone elongated and skinny.  Even before the age of HD and blu-rays, a reissue was sorely in order.
1) 2000 US BFS DVD top; 2) 2020 UK Network BD full; 3) 2020 UK Network BD.
So to start, the BD fixes that stretching, presenting the broadcast version in 1.33:1, and zooming out further to reveal more image around all four sides.  The widescreen version is in 1.78:1, and heavily crops the top and bottom, but does manage to draw in even a little more along the sides.  Another interesting curiosity about this disc, is that the fullscreen version includes the commercial break title cards, which the original DVD and the new widescreen transfer, edits out.  Beyond that, the blu naturally corrects both the interlacing and that unfortunate pattern.  The DVD's faded colors are boosted and of course, even though this is from 16mm not 35, detail is restored.  That said, Network's notes mention "careful grain management," and I have to say, the film grain here doesn't look like natural 16mm footage.  You sometimes (to be clear: not always) don't really see grain at all, just some sporadic digital noise that suggests grain before you get in close.  It's a bit worse on the widescreen version than the fullscreen, but I really just wish we could've gotten a look at the raw, undoctored scans.  Still, if you don't immediately reach for your magnifying glass, they just about get away with it in motion, and it's unquestionably a million times superior to the DVD.

The DVD just had the original mono track, slightly fuzzy, with no subtitle options.  The blu keeps the original mono track but cleans it up, boosts it to lossless LPCM, and also throws in optional English subtitles.  And yes, this applies to both the full and widescreen versions, so that's all good news.
Some interviews or other features would've been very welcome, but BFS's disc was thoroughly barebones, only offering a bonus trailer for the series Sharpe (which Kneale did write an episode of).  And of course, now that Network's finally gotten around to it, most of the creators are no longer with us to contribute.  But that's not to say this release is barebones.  They have recorded an expert commentary by Kim Newman, along with chums Mark Gatiss and Andy Nyman (the latter of whom actually had a small part in this film), who make the track more jokey than you'd expect, with the three laughing throughout.  I'll leave you to decide whether that's a pro or a con, but Newman can be counted on to know his stuff, and this track does have a wealth of information for us (helpfully, they're Kneale fans, have read the book and even watched the show when it originally aired).

That's the only on-disc extra, aside from a stills gallery - everything else is just swag.  But it's some pretty nice swag.  Network is offering "web exclusive, limited edition collectible packaging" if you order direct from their site.  They don't specify exactly what's exclusive and what isn't, but I think I can guess.  First of all, this release comes with the unusual offering of two booklets.  One features original notes by Andrew Pixley.  Uh, presumably not the one who comes up when you google the name "Andrew Pixley."  😨  That one is shrink-wrapped inside the case, so I doubt it's limited.  A second booklet, which is annoyingly too big to fit in the case, is a reproduction of Central Films' original press book for the film.  I'm guessing both that, and the very stylish slipcover that makes the film look like an old book (the spines look especially cool) are the limited part.
So okay, this release may not be completely flawless.  But we've been in desperate need of it for twenty years, and it's finally arrived.  So you'd have to be pretty stubborn to let the imperfections put you off; receiving this disc was a massively satisfying experience.  I mean, the widescreen version's a silly inclusion, and unfortunately, it's probably what's going to air on television for the fifty years, but it's easily ignored thanks to getting the original broadcast version restored right here on the same disc.  If you appreciate a good ghost story, this belongs on your shelf.

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