The Woman In Black (2012), a creepy, roller-coaster ride of a ghost story chiller, greatly exceeded my expectations. It stars Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter in the Harry Potter films) and is directed by James Watkins, who previously delivered Eden Lake (2008), a film I found both disappointing and irritating. Watkins was also a writer on My Little Eye (2002), which I really enjoyed, and The Descent: Part 2 (2009), which certainly did not top the original, but was a surprisingly entertaining sequel.
Based on a 1983 novel of the same name by Susan Hill, the 2012 adaptation of The Woman In Black is not the first to be filmed. A 1989 made-for-UK-television movie came first. It carried the same title and was directed by Herbert Wise, an Austrian-born, very successful television director who helmed more than eighty television episodes and made-for-TV movies.
I had not seen the 1989 UK film until recently, when a friend loaned me his copy of the movie. The primary reason this 1989 version of The Woman In Black was not on my radar, and is not often discussed among horror fans, is because the film has spent much of its life in hiding. It was only broadcast in the United Kingdom twice - first on December 24th, 1989, then once again in 1994. The movie was briefly available in the UK on VHS. A DVD released in 2000 in North America is out of print. (The movie never saw DVD release in the UK.) Sticky rights complications have prevented the film from being re-broadcast or re-released. The rights issues must be thorny indeed, because nobody re-released the movie in 2012 to capitalize on the remake, which is generally par for the course.
Author Susan Hill was apparently unimpressed with Herbert Wise's 1989 film adaptation of her novel. Hill was annoyed by the changes Wise and teleplay writer Nigel Kneale (the Quatermass Experiment movies and television) made to her story in adapting it to the small screen. She was publicly vocal about what she perceived as a failed film version of her work.
When the 2012 film version of The Woman In Black emerged, Hill was far less crabby. She publicly gushed her glowing admiration for the screenplay, penned by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class), and praised Daniel Radcliffe as "brilliant" in the movie.
In cases like this, I almost always prefer the older "classic" to the newfangled re-boot. However, in the case of The Woman In Black, I may enjoy both movies equally. The 2012 version was impressive, eerie, and thoroughly engrossing. It loses a couple of points for having just a wee bit too much Hollywood-esque glaze (though it's actually a British movie, produced by Hammer Films) and for its PG-13 "anything to get those kids into the theaters" posture. Still, it's a good flick. I'd rank it among the best horror films to be released in the last ten years, in fact.
The 1989 version of The Woman In Black is equally riveting, in my opinion. It does suffer a bit from the usual pitfalls that snag made-for-television movies. However, this film is a minor triumph in suspense, scares, and spookiness - especially for a flick made for TV. The tone of the film (which reminded me a bit of 1980's The Changeling) is chilling, the characters are engaging, and the fever-dream restlessness that punctuates the adventurous narrative is superb. It's a creative, fun, and frightening ghost story. (Plus I really like the dog who plays "Spider" in the movie.)
But ya want to know what's really uncanny? Adrian Rawlins plays the lead character, Arthur Kidd, in the 1989 television version of The Woman In Black. He went on to play James Potter - Harry Potter's father - in the Harry Potter films. Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry Potter in these movies, stars in the 2012 version of The Woman In Black, playing the same lead character his "father" did back in 1989. Pretty weird!
Both versions of The Woman In Black are excellent examples of clever ghost story cinema - otherworldly, crawling with menacing shadows, and full of spooky moments that even seasoned horror fans are likely to find unsettling.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze