TV’s The Woman in Black: A Supernatural Masterpiece, Resurrected (A Spoiler-Free Analysis)

NB. This is a slightly revised and expanded version of an article published on The Digital Fix in 2020.

“Another person, this time; but a figure of quite as unmistakeable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful – with such an air also, and such a face! – on the other side of the lake…”

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1898)

Ever since I first read The Turn of the Screw, it’s seemed quite plausible to me that the above sentence formed part of the inspiration which led Susan Hill to write The Woman in Black, the 1983 novel which stands as a distillation of the Dickensian/MR James style of ghost story.  The definite film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw is often said to be Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents, in which Freddie Francis’s hallucinatory, rain-dappled cinematography picks out the figure of said woman (Clytie Jessop), barely visible among the reeds by the lake, but watching with tragic air enough to thoroughly unsettle the governess (Deborah Kerr) and the audience too. 

Above: Deborah Kerr, Pamela Franklyn and Clytie Jessop in 1961’s The Innocents

Both book and film are artful and kaleidoscopic explorations of psychological disturbances as much as of supernatural phenomena, but the lakeside appearance of the ghostly Miss Jessel is such a striking moment all on its own that I wouldn’t blame a clever author for thinking “I can make a novel out of that”.

And, whatever the truth of her initial inspiration, that is what the then 41-year-old Susan Hill did, crafting a very simple story (a London solicitor travels to the coast to finalise the affairs of a recently deceased client and in doing so falls foul of a malevolent female spectre) on which to hang an intricate, cumulative series of chilling encounters much like the one above.  Her book, without aiming for either the intellectual complexity of ‘literature’ or the elaborate, gory mayhem of contemporary horror, proves that there is fascination and charm enough in the purely uncanny to merit novel-length exploration.

In 1987 the late Stephen Mallatratt wrote an ingenious, thrifty stage adaptation (just two actors, barely any set) which drew huge crowds by being, in a couple of places, simply terrifying. Its subsequent West End run, each new cast superintended by original director Robin Herford, was broken only by the arrival of COVID-19.

Above: Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t yet realise he has company in Hammer’s 2012 film of The Woman in Black

In 2012, Daniel Radcliffe, in his first post-Harry Potter role, starred in a smash-hit Woman in Black movie (it made $129 million globally on a production budget of $17 million according to the IMDB1) from resurgent British horror specialists Hammer and Eden Lake director James Watkins.

The producers were very much aware of the shadows cast by the novel and stage adaptation, and Watkins also cited The Innocents as an influence on his approach.  But the film’s pre-publicity understandably shied away from acknowledging that the novel had actually been filmed already.

That had been in 1989, by Central Television for ITV.  Producer Chris Burt and executive producer Ted Childs (the people then making Inspector Morse and who are still making Endeavour today) took note of the play’s success and hired Nigel Kneale to adapt the book into a 100-minute TV movie.

The then 67-year-old Kneale, who had practically invented television horror in 1953 with his serial The Quatermass Experiment, knocked out the script in a week (but delayed submitting it to the producers for another fortnight at the urging of his agent, who was worried they’d think it had been rushed)2.  The result was as solid, professional and un-showy (some might say staid) as a contemporaneous episode of Morse or Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.

Above: Eel Marsh House as seen in Central Television’s The Woman in Black

However, it remains – although this is where I must confess to a mountain of ingrained prejudice, because I was a very impressionable eight-year-old when I saw its initial broadcast on Christmas Eve 1989, and every subsequent viewing brings some of that back to me – absolutely terrifying, more so for me than Hill’s novel, Mallatratt’s play, or any number of big-budget horror films, and a key text in the case that the screen is the ideal home of the ghost story.

And yet, other than one repeat broadcast on Channel 4 in 1995 (which I also saw, and it terrified me all over again) and a very brief VHS release, it has been officially unavailable for decades – although this, in all honesty, has only added to its legend among those who did get to see it one way or another.3

Last year, this changed.  Those champions of archival British film and TV, Network Distribution, released a restored version of the film on Blu-Ray and DVD, exclusively available from their website.  Fans rejoiced – even those who, like me, were fortunate enough to grab a Region 1 DVD when it was briefly available in the early 2000s (the quality of the film transfer was, let’s say, not optimal).

The mystery behind the disappearance of the film has long been a matter for fannish speculation: some felt author Susan Hill wanted it suppressed (she was known to dislike many of the changes, mostly very subtle, that Kneale had made to her story).  Others theorised that the rights to officially release the film were somehow trapped in a tangle of shared ownerships that could not be unravelled.

However, as Andrew Male’s recent article for The Guardian4 revealed, the explanation was something far more mundane: market competition.  When Hammer acquired the film rights, they also purchased the right to block any competing screen versions that might impinge on the market for their film version.

It made sound business sense to prevent the 1989 film from resurfacing during the theatrical and home-release lifespan of the 2012 film, or even the handsomely-mounted-but-sadly-dull 2015 sequel its success spawned, Tom Harper’s The Woman in Black: Angel of Death.  The vast success of the first film indicates they made the right choice from a business point of view, even though it didn’t lead to the level of market saturation that Hammer horrors enjoyed in the 1960s.

But five years on from the release of Angel of Death, with the two Hammer films regularly appearing on streaming services and TV, the studio were happy to let the Network release go ahead.  And it does seem somehow apt that because of this, even in 2020 – fourteen years after Nigel Kneale’s death – his name and that of Hammer remained entwined.

Above: A poster for Hammer’s 1955 film The Quatermass Xperiment, from Nigel Kneale’s 1953 TV serial

After all, the breakout horror hit which initially launched the studio on an illustrious path of Gothic gore, leading all the way to the Queen’s Award for Industry, was 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment, the company’s X-certificated film of Kneale’s TV serial.  The 2012 Woman, though, distanced itself from this heritage by seeming to be at pains to bear as little relation as possible to his Susan Hill adaptation, perhaps because Hill was on good terms with the studio (even supplying a story outline for the eventual sequel)5.

The screenwriter of the 2012 film, Jane Goldman, was careful in retaining everything from the novel that Kneale had ditched or altered (though Goldman went on to make a raft of more expansive, and sometimes perplexing, changes and omissions of her own).

Now, I come to praise Kneale’s Woman, not bury Goldman’s – Watkins’ movie is an efficient, intense and beautifully crafted scare-machine which is packed with shock effects that, taking note of the style of Japanese horror films, almost entirely refrain from blood and gore; that’s creditable enough.

And in 2012 it was a thrill to see Hammer return to their traditions with a British period chiller in a semi-Gothic style; it’s a shame that, Angel of Death and The Quiet Ones (2014) aside, we haven’t seen more productions from them in that vein.  But the different tacks taken by the two Woman in Black adaptations are instructive.

Hill’s novel and the Mallatratt and Kneale adaptations are ghost stories: frightening in places, because the featured ghost happens to be frightening, but mainly concerned with telling a simple story of a collision between the natural and the supernatural.  The Hammer production is (not unnaturally) principally a horror film: frightening (in the sense of making you jump, regularly, and in between the jumps dread that you’ll be made to jump again) because the writer and director (and composer6, designer and cinematographer) are aware that’s what the cinema-going horror fan has paid for.

Above: The woman in black herself (Liz White) in the 2012 film

Everything about the screenplay and direction of Woman in Black 2012 is designed to make the audience tense, uneasy and on the verge of dropping their popcorn almost without remission, and this results in contrivances which are at odds with the simplicity of Hill’s tale.

Kneale’s script, on the other hand, is pitched at a broad primetime TV audience, many of whom might be horror-averse and whom, having switched on something which looks much like Poirot, need to be gently seduced into enjoying a scary story.  Goldman, confident that her audience are after nastiness, puts three (tastefully filmed) deaths into the opening scene.

But despite the 2012 film’s relentless horror-genre precision (and its undoubted success with wide audiences), I think the 1989 film is scarier.  I think this is because the world created by Kneale seems more real, and his script showcases countless little tricks that help turn a first-person-narration novel (with its inevitable subjectivity) into a filmed, realistic, multi-character drama.

Hill’s principal locale, Crythin Gifford, is a market town located near the coast (although exactly which part of the coast differs according to the adaptation).  In all versions of the story, it is a town that has suffered repeated tragedy into which Hill’s solicitor hero blunders in innocent determination to do his job.

The Hammer film – true to type – depicts the place as the kind of misty, sinister village usually located in the shadow of Castle Dracula, populated by frightened-looking women and ruddy-faced men with permanent frowns who instantly take against the stranger and try to get him to leave (“All our rooms are full” says the keeper of a really rather quiet-looking inn). 

By contrast, Kneale and director Herbert Wise (1924-2015, whose storied career included such TV classics as 1976’s I, Claudius) take time to show the normal life of the town: they depict the bustle of market day and the resultant clash of rich and poor.  Hints to the place’s dark past, rather than being foregrounded in an air of brusque hostility, seep through in little individual eccentricities.

Most memorably, the odd manner of local solicitor Arnold Pepperell7 (John Cater), outwardly genial (saying “Excuse my glove” when shaking hands) but inwardly severe (refusing an offer of a fortifying brandy because he has “views on liquor”) is revealed to be a coping strategy derived from his personal proximity to the town’s tragedy.

Other residents are unhelpful, mockingly vague or weirdly remote; character sketches that are as likely to be comic as sinister, but which give a sense of people with different histories and priorities who are about more than just signposting the plot.  The residents of Goldman’s Crythin, morose and apt to form an angry mob, are defined and defeated by their town’s horror; in Kneale’s version, they have been made strange by it, but at least have carried on.

Above: A distant mourner (Pauline Moran) watches the Reverend Greet (John Franklyn-Robbins), Arnold Pepperell (John Cater) and, back to camera, Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) in Central’s The Woman in Black

Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins playing the character as an amiable, slightly hapless family man) has been given two tasks to complete in Crythin: to retrieve any relevant papers from his deceased client’s old residence (Eel Marsh House, a remote dwelling accessible only via the Nine Lives Causeway – Hill’s place-names are splendid), but first to attend the funeral of the late Alice Drablow.

Here (in a moment of quiet unease present in all versions of the story bar Goldman’s) he notices an apparently shy mourner (Pauline Moran) whom other characters fail to acknowledge; when he travels out to Eel Marsh House, he finds he is not alone there.  As the jacket blurb on the novel’s original edition put it: “There was the rocking-chair in the nursery.  There was the sound of a pony and trap.  And there was the woman in black.”

A protagonist knocking around a lonely, spooky location is hardly original territory for the ghost story – in fact the sections of the book set at Eel Marsh House have several parallels with the middle section of The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which, prior to Sherlock Holmes’ arrival, the stolid Dr Watson is isolated at the mire-surrounded manor and pits his rationalism against a growing sense that something unearthly is afoot on the moor.  Nevertheless the value of Hill’s story is in paring the material down to the bare essentials and, through close engagement with the narrator, allowing the reader to feel they are experiencing the events first-hand.

Kneale sticks to Hill’s incidents and their order, but deploys a number of astute modifications which, very unusually in a tale of the supernatural, strengthen the logic while also, in an apparent contradiction, heightening the level of fear.  Chiefly he modernises the setting of Hill’s vaguely Edwardian story to about 1920 – motor vehicles and references to the recent nightmares of the trenches are common – so Kneale’s Eel Marsh House has two features not found in other versions: electric lighting, powered by a temperamental generator, and a phonograph machine.

Ghost stories tend to be most penetrating in the confrontation between rational and supernatural readings of the world, and these scientific devices help Arthur to both make sense of and fight against the terrors which beset him.  While this may push the film away from the Gothic genre (in contrast, the house in the 2012 and 2015 films is a typically rotting, cavernous Hammer pile; often the only source of light in it is a candle), the scientific additions provide (unreliable) areas of comfort and comprehension which can then be threatened.

Above: Arthur (Adrian Rawlins) listening to Mrs Drablow’s phonograph recorder

The phonograph plays back diary entries of the house’s former occupant which allows Mrs Drablow (an uncredited but recognisable voice cameo from Herbert Wise’s wife, Fiona Walker, who also appears in the film as Mrs Toovey) to drop hints of her back-story directly to Arthur as he goes through the paperwork.  This subtly adds to the feeling that he is not alone in the house while also giving him a way to rationalise the haunting as merely a series of “recordings, like the ones on this machine” (a notion in parapsychology called “residual haunting” previously explored by Kneale in his 1972 BBC-TV ghost story The Stone Tape8), which steels him to further encounters.

And the presence of electric lights allows for a wonderful common-sense moment (unthinkable for the protagonists of most horror movies, who specialise in blundering into the dark) when Arthur, spooked by an early visitation at the house, reacts as a rational person, alone and attempting to confront an irrational fear, would do: he goes through the house, opens all the doors and switches on the lights in every room, banishing dark corners.

This is a film which pays heed to a little-learned lesson taught by director John Carpenter in his 1978 masterpiece Halloween (and ignored by most of its imitators): everyone’s afraid of the dark, but if you want to really scare your audience, do it in daytime – and then turn out the lights.  Inevitably, the generator at Eel Marsh House runs down.

Kneale had worked with Carpenter, penning the original screenplay that became Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)9.  Like Goldman – who collaborated with director Matthew Vaughn on Kick-Ass (2009) and X-Men: First Class (2011) – he went to Hollywood before Crythin Gifford.  Unlike Goldman’s, his experience was not happy: he took his name off Halloween III after it was rewritten by Carpenter and director Tommy Lee Wallace; he resultant film was perceived as a disaster10, and Kneale’s script for John Landis’ proposed remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon went unproduced.

Years of this kind of thing had undoubtedly familiarised Kneale with a studio’s preference for generic conventions and narrative neatness over complexity and innovation (which might put off the wider audience).  His first experience of this was when the weird ending of his 1953 Quatermass serial (in which the hero saves the day by somehow convincing the monster to kill itself) was changed for the movie (in which the hero stands aside while the army electrocute the monster to death).  He deplored such tactics, but was able to employ them to great effect when they benefited the material at hand.

Every version of The Woman in Black has a slightly different ending.  Hill’s is ruthlessly effective, but derives a great deal of its power from the intimacy which has built up between the reader and the narrating Arthur who, as a middle-aged man, is still troubled by memories of events at Crythin Gifford and has decided to finally set them down on paper as a kind of self-therapy.

Mallatratt’s stage adaptation has a framing story about Arthur telling his tale to the young theatre director who will help turn his memoir into a one-man show; a logical (and necessarily self-reflexive) extrapolation of Hill’s telling, albeit one which alters the story’s structure and forces the adapter to add an epilogue.

Above: A publicity shot from the 2020 production of The Woman in Black at London’s Fortune Theatre

This kind of device, in which a first-person narrator not only recounts the story in which they were a participant but also takes the time to explain how, why and when they have come to write it down, goes back at least as far as the Gothic novel.  Allowing the reader to come to know the narrator as a character – a trusted observer caught in the events being described, rather than an anonymous contriver of them – it can be especially useful for making fantastic narratives more convincing.

On screen, however, a depiction of a narrator in the form of a voice-over or within a filmed framing sequence can have the opposite effect: reminding the audience that what they’re seeing is someone’s interpretation of events, undermining the appearance of objective reality for which the mise-en-scene of the film may otherwise aim.

After all, when narrators are characterised in movies it is often to show that their relation of events is unreliable, as Akira Kurosawa demonstrated in the oft-cited Rashomon (1950), and passages in which the storyteller revises their tale as it goes along appear in the work of film-makers as different as Michael Haneke, Guy Ritchie and Michael Winterbottom11.  Elsewhere, voice-over narration tends to be used to fill in back-story that would otherwise be difficult (or expensive) to convey, or to import into a movie adaptation something of the style of a very prosy literary source, as in Sofia Coppola’s film of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (1999).

Wiseley, with none of these techniques really required by Hill’s story, the screen versions of The Woman in Black refrain from the use of narration or framing device, and Kneale and Goldman keep their scripts in the present tense but craft their own endings which aim to equal the punch of the revelation with which the novel’s Arthur chooses to end his story.

Kneale’s conclusion is the most elaborate of the various endings and seems somewhat modelled, incongruously enough, on the closing moments of Friday the 13th (1980).  This defining slasher film was hugely popular and a significant part of the explosion of that genre over the following decade, but it’s also, mostly, a terrible and brainless movie; for me, its startling but nonsensical last scene is pretty much its only redeeming feature.

Kneale happily steals the moment12, but actually takes care to tie it to the preceding narrative, aided by the fact that he has provided the story with something that a screenwriting tutor would note as lacking in the novel: an ‘inciting incident’13.

Above: Duel (1971): David Mann has just made the mistake of overtaking the tanker truck

This is the initial occurrence that starts the plot moving, such as the moment in Duel (1971) when motorist David Mann overtakes an apparently innocent tanker truck on a lonely stretch of road.  It would be crass to say every screenplay needs a moment like this, but it does seem odd that in neither book nor play, Arthur doesn’t actually do anything at all to merit being targeted by the woman in black with the same fury that Mann is subsequently hounded by the tanker truck.  Why does she come after him? 

This question may have bothered Jane Goldman too, as her script seems to see the woman (actually the long-deceased Jennet, Alice Drablow’s sister) as the sort of wronged spirit repeatedly featured in Japanese horrors like the Ju-On/The Grudge series (2002 – ), who revenges herself on anyone who enters her house regardless of their irrelevance to the original crime (“Fear her curse” read the posters for the Hammer film).

Kneale’s answer, strengthening the whole structure of the piece, is to add an early incident in which Arthur saves a gypsy girl from being killed in a freak accident at the market (“Should’ve left well alone,” comments an onlooker, “too many gypsies round ‘ere”).  At that point, he has crossed Jennet, though he doesn’t realise it until much later – and if this is a ‘grudge’, it’s extremely personal.

Above: The Woman (Pauline Moran) in the churchyard

I don’t know if it says anything about society as a whole or just about the horror genre that possibly the most repeatably terrifying cinematic image of the last two decades has been the unexpected appearance of a pale-faced female with long black hair, like Sadako in Ringu (1998, a template followed by Watkins’ film in several respects).  At least Pauline Moran’s superficially comparable Jennet seems more like a proper character rather than an out-and-out monster – troublingly both human and inhuman, mixing specific and universal malevolence.

Moran, who gets fourth billing in the credits despite very limited screen time, makes a considerable impact with her stare alone; in return, Rawlins ably conveys innocent openness quickly freezing to terror as, unlike the protagonists of many ghost films, Arthur Kidd doesn’t just catch glimpses of her at the window or in a flash of lightning, he gets a lingering look into her incomprehensibly malicious face.

As noted, literary ghost stories tend to be subjective, first-person accounts of the strange14: as easy to get lost in as a tall tale told in a pub – and potentially as easy to dismiss.  Their success in being frightening depends upon the narrating character’s ability to convey his or her sense of terror to the reader.  A screen adaptation is by necessity a third-hand retelling by a director, and its success will depend on the director and cast’s ability to persuade the audience to empathise with the lead character(s).

Films like The Innocents, The Haunting (1963) and The Others (2001) are extremely adept at this, acquainting the audience with a hysterical protagonist’s perspective to a degree that casts doubt as to whether the supernatural experiences which befall the character are any more than the symptoms of a delusional mind, like the apparitions that drive Catherine Deneuve’s Carol to murder in Repulsion (1964).  While courting critical respectability by allowing the films to trade as psychological studies as much as disposable horror thrill-rides (publicity for The Innocents chose to stress “the most controversial concept in human relationships ever presented!” rather than the ghosts), this approach need not negate their effectiveness as supernatural horror (while it’s very likely that Miss Giddens in The Innocents and Eleanor in The Haunting are seriously disturbed, that doesn’t mean they aren’t also being haunted).

However, this psychological ambiguity has been co-opted by a great many subsequent ghost dramas, and when less carefully employed stands merely to mask lazy plotting15. Again finding strength in simplicity, The Woman in Black avoids this: in the novel, Arthur is certain that Jennet is real even though he doesn’t want to believe in her, and the screen versions are explicit that she’s objectively real (other characters can see her too, as of course can the audience).

In the 1989 film, director Wise is nevertheless careful not to depict the apparition except when Kidd can also see her: and rather than attempting to dictate to them, he allows the viewers’ emotional responses to be guided by Rawlins’ reactions.

Many directors of such films would eschew such a straightforward approach, seeming to think that their job is to shock, startle and upset the audience directly, using any and all lighting, sound design and special effects tricks available16.

A typical shock of the lesser ghost film is to have someone/thing unexpectedly appear in a mirror or behind a door, seen to the audience but not the protagonist (often accompanied by a sudden stab of orchestral music). This can create a decent jolt but is founded on a technique of dramatic irony in opposition to audience empathy with the characters, reducing the people on screen to stooges of the director and thereby lessening the effectiveness of the story.

The hard-to-define feeling of awareness-bordering-on-fear of a possible supernatural presence, central to any ghostly tale, is a subtle emotion with which to ask the audience to empathise, and that empathy is wont to be obliterated by the clattering artifice of deafening music and manipulative editing which are the horror director’s usual tools of the trade in crafting films based around more prosaic threats like serial killers, say, or zombies.  Better that directors keep their hand hidden beneath the most banal, ‘invisible’ conventions of the prevailing realism, or else disguised as that of another kind of director entirely (as in Ghostwatch, 1992, or The Blair Witch Project, 1999, which are dramas but pretend to be documentaries, therefore acknowledging their status as ‘constructed’ realities).

I believe that, for the supernatural parts of a story to stand a chance of being halfway convincing, then the non-supernatural events surrounding them must seem utterly real – ‘everyday’, and not in any way designed.

From this point of view it is easy to see why the most financially successful supernatural horrors to come out of America in the last twenty-some years are Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity (2009), the near-unmediated nature of their ‘found footage’ approach being the screen equivalent of the collection of diary entries and newspaper extracts Bram Stoker uses in Dracula to give his very outre tale an edge of veracity17.

However, this approach also alienated a significant section of the (vast) audience unwilling or unable to enjoy a horror movie lacking the stylistic gratifications of big-budget offerings like, to choose random examples, Se7en (1995), Dawn of the Dead (2004) or Pandorum (2009).

But what the Herbert Wise/Nigel Kneale version of The Woman in Black shows is that there is a way to make supernatural horror that retains subtlety without throwing out cinematic form, while still inspiring visceral terror and sustained perturbation in the audience, and it’s because it succeeds in that so well that I believe this kind of story works better on screen than on the page.

It’s admittedly a tough argument to make stick, as while there are countless successful literary ghost stories (every horror author tries at least one), there are relatively few really effective cinematic ones other than those I’ve mentioned – certainly in the English language18.

I think the films and TV shows I’ve referred to in this essay, along with brethren like Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), ‘The Exorcism’ (Dead of Night, 1972), The Signalman (1976) and Crooked House (2008), beat their prose equivalents because the films force us to go with their protagonists into the supernatural realm.

Starkly, we have to see what they see and hear what they hear at the same time as they do, instead of having the strange events filtered first through a narrator’s re-telling and then through the safety net of our own imaginative interpretation.  If the film-making is done with sufficient imagination and skill, our emotional bond with the characters is only increased, because the experience is one being shared, rather than related.

Beautifully shot and scored – enough to satisfy those audiences who demand on-screen ‘production values’ – and built around Rawlins’ capable ‘everyman’ performance set against brilliantly chosen, natural-looking locations, Wise’s film exemplifies that kind of skill and imagination.  Rachel Portman’s evocative musical score does occasionally get out the Psycho strings to underscore moments of shock19, but is mainly present in the form of appropriately haunting, lullaby-like melodies which almost feel part of the melancholy landscape through which Arthur wanders. 

Lest I should appear utterly slavish in my adoration of the 1989 film, however, I suppose I should concede that it is hardly a critic-proof production.  The opening domestic scenes showing Kidd with his (frankly odd) son could have done with another take.  There are a couple of moments in which the over-dubbing and sound-mixing is a little too obvious20.

And some of the scenes in Crythin Gifford raise unintended laughs due to Nigel Kneale’s fondness for crafting ornately rustic dialogue for working-class characters (“Nine Lives Causeway.  Like what the cat’s got.  It’s what you need ‘ere”), even if the occasional weirdness of the townsfolk is justified by the material.

Additionally, I’d like to be clear that I would generally recommend both film adaptations of The Woman in Black, as well as the original novel and almost all of the derived works (including the decent BBC Radio 4 adaptation by Jon Strickland from 1993, but stopping short of Angel of Death).  If you’ve never experienced any of them, though, I would suggest trying one of the pre-2012 versions first, so as to purely enjoy the story without foreknowledge of the plot revelations in the 2012 film (which mucks about with the structure anyway).

But because of the choices Wise and Kneale made, their film stands in comparison to Watkins’ and Goldman’s as a reminder that horror film-making doesn’t have to be about hitting the audience with periodic scare effects to keep them in a permanent state of tension.  Rather, it can be about leading them on a pleasant-seeming stroll into the woods, only for them to slowly realise they don’t know the way back, which can lead to an even higher pitch of terror.

Moran’s Jennet is not frightening because her appearances are unexpected, or because she’s visually horrible (mostly, she isn’t), but because her simple presence hints at matters more deeply incorporeal, leading to the disturbing sense that she remains somehow present even when not seen.

A special mention should also go to Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories, a regularly revived hit theatre experience since 2010, which Dyson and Nyman turned into a self-directed (and genuinely flesh-creeping) film in 2017.  (And how fitting that Nyman made his TV acting debut in none other than Wise’s The Woman in Black, credited as ‘Andrew Nyman’ in a bit-part as a clerk at Arthur’s firm – he’s on the commentary track of the Network release with Kim Newman and Mark Gatiss23.)

Above: Sweetman’s junior clerks, Jackie (Andy Nyman) and Rolfe (Stephen Mackintosh)

And I haven’t even mentioned the brilliant use of the dog, the football21, the toy soldier, the sea ‘frets’, or the understated performance of Bernard Hepton as the reassuringly bluff Sam, all of which contribute significantly to the effect and help to explain why viewers who never saw the film again after its initial broadcast still remember it so vividly, three decades later.

When, in 2012, I wrote the first version of this article, I ended it with a series of pleas.  Joyously, the first – for someone to finally release a restored version of the film – has been answered by Network, and the second – for a quality talking book to be made from the original novel – by Audible’s exclusive, unabridged reading of the novel (although it isn’t read by Samuel West, who would’ve been my preferred Arthur, but by Paul Ansdell).

I also asked that film and TV producers more often take a chance on the ghost story, and I’m delighted that this has also come to pass; although most of the results I have seen have been variable, Mike Flanagan’s semi-adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House for Netflix was astonishingly frightening in parts (Flanagan and Netflix subsequently gave the same treatment to The Turn of the Screw, to less acclaim, before Flanagan moved on to Midnight Mass22).

I also wondered if Hammer might consider mining the Nigel Kneale back-catalogue for more properties deserving of a re-telling, such as The Road (1963), The Stone Tape, ‘Baby’ (Beasts, 1976) and the original draft of Halloween III.

I now know that Kneale’s family are not keen that the Halloween III script ever see the light of day, and of the others, only The Road has been newly adapted (by Toby Hadoke for BBC Radio 4 in 2018).  A Hammer remake of The Abominable Snowman, a Kneale script (based on his TV play) that they first filmed in 1957, was announced in 201324 but has yet to appear.

But my final request was to fans of supernatural horror.  Simply, if you haven’t seen it, make sure you watch Nigel Kneale’s The Woman in Black.  That request still stands.

TD Velasquez

The Woman in Black

Central Television, 1989.  Director: Herbert Wise.  Producer: Chris Burt.  Screenplay: Nigel Kneale, based on the novel by Susan Hill.  Director of photography: Michael Davis.  Production designer: Jon Bunker. Editor: Laurence Mery-Clark. Music: Rachel Portman.  With: Adrian Rawlins (Arthur Kidd), Bernard Hepton (Sam Toovey), David Daker (Josiah Freston), Pauline Moran (Woman in Black), David Ryall (Mr Sweetman), Clare Holman (Stella Kidd), William Simons (John Keckwick), John Cater (Arnold Pepperell), Fiona Walker (Mrs Toovey/voice of Alice Drablow), Trevor Cooper (Farmer), John Franklyn-Robbins (Vicar), Stephen Mackintosh (Rolfe), Andrew (Andy) Nyman (Jackie).

For full cast and crew go to

Notes and references

  1. See for the full box-office breakdown.
  2. Mark Gatiss tells this story in a BBC News article on the occasion of Kneale’s death, ‘Quatermass creator was TV giant’, November 2006: 
  3. Of course, outside this select few, for a while the film seemed in danger of being completely forgotten – it didn’t even rate a mention in Channel 4’s 2003 run-down of The 100 Greatest Scary Moments.
  4. Male, Andrew, ‘The Woman in Black: Why Did Britain’s Scariest Horror Film Disappear?’,, Friday 7th August 2020:
  5. Oddly enough, however, Angel of Death betrays a little more of the 1989 film’s influence: its period setting (the 1940s) is closer to that used by Kneale and it retains his device, absent from the book and 2012 film, of using Mrs Drablow’s phonograph recordings to deliver backstory.  It also features Adrian Rawlins – 1989’s Arthur – among the cast.
  6. Marco Beltrami, no less – the horror music specialist who, with Scream (1996) and many others, defined the sound of Miramax subsidiary Dimension Films, the company which, until the arrival of Blumhouse, was probably the nearest thing in modern cinema to Hammer-style churn-‘em-out horror studio.  His noisy, string-heavy approach is not too different to that of the late James Bernard, who wrote (scores of) film and TV scores for Hammer between 1955 and 1980.  Beltrami would return to contribute to the score for The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, although sadly he’s not involved in the imminent Scream 5 (2022).
  7. In the novel, Pepperell is called Horatio Jerome.  Kneale was quite free in changing Hill’s character names.  The book’s hero is Arthur Kipps, but Kneale changed the surname to ‘Kidd’ as he felt Hill shouldn’t have appropriated the name of the title character of HG Wells’ 1905 novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul – and he didn’t stop there.  Samuel Daily became Sam Toovey, Mr Bradley became Mr Sweetman, innkeeper Mr Fisher became Josiah Freston (!) and Jennet Humfrye, the Woman in Black herself, became Jennet Goss.  Although I can sympathise with Hill possibly feeling that these changes revealed Kneale to be casting somewhat patrician judgement on her work, some of the new names do help to boost the impact of smaller supporting roles.   A weirder change made by Kneale – which Susan Hill admits to finding especially irritating –  was the sex of the dog Spider (female in the book, male in the 1989 film).  Although I haven’t been able to find any comment on this from anyone involved in the production, I like to think that a thematic frisson is added because now all the sympathetic characters at Eel Marsh house (including, possibly, a more benevolent spirit) are male, while the antagonist is the titular Woman.  It somehow makes Arthur seem more vulnerable, being beset by female attacks but unable to call on female help.
  8. Hutchison, Thom and Haley, Guy, “Time Trap: The Stone Tape”, Death Ray issue 19, Blackfish Publishing, June/July 2009.  Again a Christmas special, The Stone Tape is a brilliantly written example of Kneale’s techniques being applied to a modern-day, technological ghost story, and had sufficient impact that residual haunting came to be referred to as “stone tape theory”.
  9. Carpenter had been a Kneale fan since seeing the Hammer Quatermass films as a child.  His 1987 film Prince of Darkness, self-written under the pseudonym ‘Martin Quatermass’, is a combined remake of The Stone Tape and Quatermass and the Pit via his own Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).
  10. Simpson, MJ, “The SFX Interview: Nigel Kneale”, SFX # 14, Future Publishing, July 1996; also Brosnan, John, The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film, Little Brown and Co., 1995.  Roger Ebert listed the film as one of his ten worst of 1982, but more recent years have seen the film undergo something of a critical re-evaluation.  The Kim Newman/Stephen Jones commentary on the 2002 DVD of the film from Sanctuary Records is very instructive about Kneale’s involvement in Halloween III.  Of course, the definitive discussion of the film takes place on our very own podcast (though of course, I may be biased):
  11. Respectively: Funny Games, 1996; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, 1998; 24 Hour Party People, 2001.
  12. The lesson here is “be careful what you steal from”.  Kneale dropping a bit from a Sean S. Cunningham slasher film into a period ghost story results in something thoroughly distinct, whereas when Goldman peps up the middle of her script by adding a bit out of WW Jacobs’ ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, it just looks like copying.
  13. As defined in McKee, Robert, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, ReganBooks, 1997.
  14. This generally remains true even when the narrating character is not directly involved in the action.  Even MR James’ ghost stories, told in the third person, have a characterised narrator who often explains how he came to hear of the events described (sometimes second- or third-hand, as in ‘A School Story’), achieving the feel of true stories that have been told and re-told while also opening up areas of vagueness, due to some details being emphasised and others lost as the story has been passed on, about which readers are invited to speculate.  James had probably realised that in tales of suspense, horror and tragedy, having a main character who is guaranteed from start to survive to relate the tale can make things difficult for an author, which is why the epic love-beyond-multiple-deaths tale of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1848) is narrated from the sidelines by several supporting characters.  Imaginative solutions to this problem are found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Aykroyd (1926).
  15. For example, Sea of Souls (BBC, 2004-7) and almost every cop drama’s barrel-scraping ‘weird’ episode.  For some reason this makes me think of Baywatch’s ‘The Cretin of the Shallows’ (1989).
  16. Sadly, this appears to be the case even in (relatively) subtle films made by people who seem somewhat aware of the Kneale/Wise film.  The Woman in Black: Angel of Death is one such, as is Justin Molotnikov’s The Small Hand, Channel 5’s Boxing Day 2019 dramatisation of another Hill ghost story.  The latter is part of a rash of recent TV and theatre productions (Hill’s The Mist in the Mirror and The Man in the Picture have also been adapted for the stage) which seem to hope to follow up the Mallatratt or Kneale versions of Woman but demonstrate little understanding of what worked about those adaptations.  The Small Hand is weirdly particular in its attempt to evoke the 1989 film – transmitted almost exactly thirty years later, it has a child-centric plot, a female spectre (Neve Mackintosh) and even Adrian Rawlins in a supporting role, again – but adds up to precisely nothing.  Full of non-cumulative irony-jolts, Molotnikov’s and Harper’s plot-light films both feature very engaging leads (Douglas Henshall, Phoebe Fox) who spend most of their screen time wandering unmotivated through spooky rooms, and support my theory that too many directors think that ghost films are those in which nothing happens very loudly.
  17. The remarkable success of Rob Savage’s ‘Shudder Original’ Host (2020) shows that this approach is very much still effective translated to the medium of post-Covid-19 video conferencing.  Another recent and ingenious production to use this approach was the 2018 Halloween Special of the BBC’s dark comedy anthology, Inside Number 9.
  18. There are arguably far more Spanish and Japanese examples.
  19. She’s far from the only composer to mimic Bernard Herrmann’s music for the 1960 film, Pino Donaggio’s Carrie (1976) and Richard Band’s Re-Animator (1985) scores being only the most blatant of the numerous other examples.
  20. These flaws remain in the restored version.  I’m glad they do.  There’s a significant scare which could actually be lessened by smoother sound-mixing.  Devotees of the film probably know what I’m referring to.
  21. The 1989 film doesn’t feature the haunted rocking chair – the image of which was central to the novel and the stage adaptation, used extensively in the 2012 film, and thoroughly tired by the time Angel of Death wheeled it out for the umpteenth time.
  22. Shepherd, Jack, ‘The Haunting of Hill House Season 2: Netflix confirm title for follow-up to horror series’,, 22 February 2019
  23. The actor discusses his memories of the production in ‘Andy Nyman – The Woman in Black’,, July 2020:
  24. Pulver, Andrew, ‘Hammer To Reanimate Abominable Snowman Film’,, 22nd November 2013:

2 thoughts on “TV’s The Woman in Black: A Supernatural Masterpiece, Resurrected (A Spoiler-Free Analysis)

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