Christmas, it seems, has come early (or possibly very late) for fans of Nigel Kneale. Barring an unlikely resurrection of the forever-lost early Quatermass episodes, what aficionados of the doyenne of British sci fi and horror probably wanted to see was a really handsome blu-ray release of his 1989 adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Originally broadcast on Christmas Eve as part of the apparently forgotten tradition of scaring the British public shitless at Christmas, the adaptation has seemingly been in home media limbo for a while, with no decent release doing justice to this visually sumptuous, eerie gem of British television.
Kneale’s adaptation is pretty faithful to the source material, although Susan Hill infamously balked at the few cosmetic changes. Junior solicitor Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlings) is dispatched from his London firm to the remote market town of Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of Alice Drablow, a recently deceased widow and long-term client. Worryingly, upon his arrival he finds that the townsfolk are reluctant to discuss his business and, while attending the funeral, witnesses the unsettling image of an anonymous woman dressed all in black lurking around the graveyard. All signs point to, if not some local conspiracy, then at least an uneasy pact of silence. Later, while investigating the widow’s now empty mansion, he has a second encounter with the titular character which leaves him terrified. Alone, trapped by the tides in an empty house and molested by the sinister figure of the woman, he begins to unearth information as to her identity and relationship with the house’s former owner.
The key message here is that, in horror terms, less is more and the things that you cannot see are inevitably scarier than the things you can. Although, when push comes to shove, Kneale’s adaptation under the direction of Herbert Wise is prepared to show the goods, there is far more emphasis on crafting a lingering sense of dread and emphasising the feeling of isolation. Hammer’s recent adaption managed to do it fairly admirably until a third-act pinata explosion of naff CGI; this embraces its televisual limitations to craft a genuinely chilling hundred-odd minutes that cranks up the tension to almost unbearable levels without overplaying its hand. The one slight misfire, the closest thing to a jump-scare this ever attempts, which feels misplaced given the otherwise lack of visual party-tricks on show, still isn’t enough to take the gloss off what is a near-perfect example of television horror.
Horror, Mystery, Television | UK, 1989 | 15 | Blu-Ray | 10th August 2020 (UK) | Ntework Releasing | Dir.Herbert Wise | Adrian Rawlins, Pauline Moran, Andy Nyman, Bernard Hepton, David Daker.