"The Woman in Black" (1989, Herbert Wise, Granada Television) was a made-for-TV movie based on the novel by Susan Hill (worth a read!).
I was loaned this movie by a work colleague who was disappointed with the 2012 remake. Having not read the book before watching either film, I'd walked in completely open minded.
In my presumptious way, having watched the remake first, I thought there was no way I was going to jump at an 80's horror. I'm a horror fan for Pete's sake. I was wrong.
Now bear in mind, this is the kind of movie you want to watch in the dark to help the atmosphere.
The general plot
Arthur Kidd (he's called Kipps in the book) is a young solicitor trying to get his career going. He's offered an apparently ideal opportunity when he is asked to travel to a small town, Crythin Gifford, on the East Coast of England to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow, and then to spend several days clearing the paperwork from her house, the large secluded Eel Marsh house which is located on the marshes and is only accessible when the tide is out.
Arthur sets off by train, on which he meets local landowner and businessman, Sam Toovey. Sam's character is friendly but wary. I felt the portrayal of him in this version was much more like the book. Sam is slightly concerned to hear of Arthur's reason for visiting Crythin Gifford, but he has the least questionable reaction to the news.
Arthur is staying at a local hotel, and soon finds that upon hearing of the nature of his business in the town, the locals become less friendly.
He attends Mrs. Drablow's funeral with the local solicitor and is shocked to find that they are the only attendees. Until he spots a woman, all dressed in black, standing far back at the funeral. Convinced that she must be a relative of the dead woman come to mourn her death, he tries to go to her, but is stopped by the other solicitor who refuses to acknowledge her presence.
I enjoyed the bit with the children watching over the wall, staring at the ghost. And the ghost remains in shot for quite sometime before the expected pan-away-pan-back-and-she's-gone-moment.
Arthur is next taken to Eel Marsh house via the rundown pony and trap of Mr. Keckwick; the only person who will go near the house. The house perfectly portrayed, with a good amount of creep. The woman is spotted again in the graveyard next to the house and she begins to approach Kidd who runs (this is the other way around in the book).
Kidd snoops around the house, turning on lights. The tension built with this simple activity is great. The mysterious locked door is also very well portrayed.
He reads some papers and discovers death certificates for a child and an adult from the same date. He also listens to some creepy recordings made by Mrs. Drablow. This is not in the book, but is a good way to tell the story quickly on screen.
He tires while awaiting Keckwick's return, and wanders onto the marshes into the sea mist. He becomes quickly confused and lost, and hears what sounds like a terrible accident nearby with a pony, trap and child falling into the quicksand, screaming terribly and then drowning.
Terrified and blinded by fog, he stumbles back to the house where he is greeted by Keckwick who assures him that there has been no accident. Well, he mumbles something. Keckwick doesn't talk much.
Mr. Toovey meets up with Arthur and deplores him not to return to the house, but Arthur is determined not only to return, but to stay overnight and try to finish his task. Toovey realises he cannot convince him otherwise, and instead loans him his dog, Spider.
Kidd returns to the house and sets up shop, working away. Suddenly there is the sound of a ball being bounced. The noise is coming from the locked room. He tries to open it, and eventually grabs an axe, only to find that the door is suddenly open, revealing a pristine nursery. He walks into the room and a ball rolls out. The source of the noise. All is quiet until a soft child's voice whispers 'Hello?' I tell you in the dark, alone, that is creepy. Not to mention the following childish laughter and then the toy soldier which appears in Arthur's hand.
The power goes out and Arthur bolts from the room to turn it back on again. Spider joins him and then runs off into the marshes after hearing a call. Arthur runs after her but stops dead when the noises of the horse and cart accident and the screaming begin again. Terrified again, he runs to the house, where he reads some more and records his thoughts onto Mrs. Drablow's recording device.
He discovers from the papers who the Woman In Black really is, Mrs. Drablow's sister Jennet, and that her child was taken out of her care and given to her sister. Jennet had tried to kidnap her son and had lost control of the cart and pony in the sea fog, killing herself, her child and the pony. She has since haunted the house and her sister, and until her sister's death.
Toovey comes to collect Arthur after Spider manages to run all the way home, and upon hearing Arthur's discoveries, explains that usually seeing the Woman in Black results in the death of a child. Now officially creeped, Arthur decides to leave Eel Marsh house, but first wants to show the nursery to Mr. Toovey. When they go into the room, it has been trashed and all the toys destroyed. Arthur faints.
Toovey takes him to his house to care for him, but Arthur's sleep is disturbed by nightmares, ghostly voices and finally by the terrible spectre of the Woman standing over him and screaming in his face. This scene made me jump as she just appears from nowhere.
Upon returning to London, Kidd finds that some of Mrs. Drablow's papers have been sent to his office, and fearing the worst, he sets them on fire, believing that this would stop the curse. (As if it were that easy!) All that happens is that he gets himself fired.
The final scene always reminds me of the original 'Friday the 13th'. Arthur, his wife and son are in a boat on a lake with a picnic. Just then he sees the Woman in Black standing on the water, staring at him. Arthur stares helplessly as a tree then falls onto their boat, killing them all.
A relatively faithful adaptation which has a fair amount of tension without any gore. The Woman is creepy and haunting, and the mistrusting and unhelpful villagers are reminiscent of those found in 'An American Werewolf in London'.
All in all a good film with some jumps. Not quite the almost-'Grudge'-style horror of the 2012 remake, but certainly worth a watch, if you can get your mitts on it (it's very hard to track down!)