I had been looking forward to seeing this movie since I heard it was being made. I don’t see many films these days, even ones I really want to see, so I was determined to see it, come hell or high water. You see, I heard the radio adaptation (from the early 1990s, with Robert Glenister as Kipps) in 2008, and I enjoyed it very much. So much so that I got hold of the novella, and read that too. Then when the touring stage show came to Swansea in 2010, I made a point of seeing that, too. So all versions have their merits, and it indeed says something about a story if it can translate across that many media and be such a roaring success (surely it’s bound to go on some Gothic horror syllabi one of these days).
It is a ghost story in the truest sense, and though it takes place in Edwardian times, it is very much rooted in the Victorian Gothic. The film moves slowly at first, and I wasn’t surprised when I realized it is only a 75-minute film. There isn’t much in the way of plot; it’s all generated by mood, which is why it appeals to me much more than the average horror film. People will be wanting to know how Daniel Radcliffe acquitted himself, and to be honest, it isn’t an acting role that requires much of a person. There is little dialogue of consequence, and though Arthur in the film does more acting than he does in the other version (as opposed to reacting), he is in some ways similar to the Gothic heroines of Mrs Radcliffe, or Jonathan Harker at the beginning of Dracula. The film emphasizes Kipps caught in a waking nightmare in an extended sequence during the night he spends at Eel Marsh. What Kipps needs in this film is the look, and I think Radcliffe has it.
There have been some minor, but important changes, from the previous versions. Keckwick has a much reduced role, as does Jerome, and Sam Daly has inherited a wife. And what a wife! The film makes much more of the cult of spiritualism that was rather on the wane at this juncture, notwithstanding Arthur Conan Doyle (whom they even mention), than any previous version. Arthur is given much more motivation to have an open mind (as well as having the determination to finish a clearly ill-fated duty for his company). The only skeptic is Daly, but his skepticism is replaced by Christian faith, which seems to underline the film’s ending (which is rather a surprising, and conventionally Victorian, way of concluding, given the demonic goings-on of what I assumed to be a Gothic horror house). With Arthur, Mrs Daly, and others involved in mediumship and the attempts to reach out to loved ones on the other side, I was reminded of what Susan Douglas said in her great book about American radio: spiritualism gained momentum again after World War I due to so many people being lost, and so many grieving relatives. Ergo, it saw a rise at the same time as the invention of radio; both seemed to be involved in recalling voices from the “ether.”
The Woman in White is a true sensation novel, and as Woman in Black’s obvious antecedent, it actually has little influence on it. For one, Woman in Black has far fewer characters, and most of the female characters are dead. Perhaps one reason it has endured is that its obsession is with the death of children. The film is graphic in its depiction of children going to their deaths and coming back as ghosts (the Woman in Black “made them do it”). To hammer this point home even more, and to provide us with a long-lasting barrage of “eeek!” moments that make us jump, the film adds a number of props not in the previous versions, most obviously creepy toys that come alive seemingly of their own volition (I read on IMDB.com that these are all original ephemera). If we needed even more imagery, Arthur’s first clue that there is something alive in the house is when he rescues a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest in one of the upstairs rooms. The film does not really address the problems of legitimacy but prefer to dwell on the ghost’s irreconcilable evil.
I think I’m going to have to include the SPOILERS from now on. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The film decided to kill off Mrs Kipps before the events took place, which was actually quite a good decision. The film also differs decisively from earlier versions during Arthur’s overnight stay at Eel Marsh Manor. One thing worth mentioning is the rocking chair, which is the highlight of the stage show and genuinely, quake-in-your-boots frightening in the stage show. (I should mention that one shouldn’t feel, upon seeing the movie, that the play can offer you nothing new. It is an extremely clever rendering of the story, using only two actors, and minimal props.) However, one of the props happens to be the rocking chair. This scene is built upon with layers of tension so highly strung it practically makes you bolt out of your seat when the inevitable conclusion comes. But even after this, the filmmakers have felt the need to lengthen Arthur’s nightmare.
The man is out of his mind, either with bravery or . . . something. Throughout the film, he keeps having to return to the nursery. I know it’s a film, but I can imagine that myself in that position, having to turn around, walk down that corridor, and return to that room, knowing what he knows by that point in the film—well, I think my heart would stop. I wouldn’t be able to do it. But Arthur does it. Even when the ghost’s son’s ghost (?!?!) appears outside, knocks on the door, disappears, and then leaves wet footprints . . .! At this point, with the wraiths becoming more and more corporeal, I was a bit worried that things were heading for overkill territory. Shortly after that, however, came morning, and Sam Daly.
The most important scene for me in the radio adaptation was when Spider the dog ran out onto the marsh and got lost in the fog. Arthur had to save her from the squelching mud, and as I listened in appalled silence, I seriously thought she was going to die. I was really invested in Woman in Black for the first time at that moment. The film chose to leave that incident out, probably wisely. There’s only so much you can do cinematically with disorienting fog, unless you really want to alienate your audience. The first time it showed up was the brief scene in a London street, which definitely did not help in my attempting to take things seriously. The second time was actually on the marsh, and this one scene spoke volumes.
The film also differed in how Arthur dealt with the situation once he realized the sad story behind it all. He became much more proactive and decided, somehow, that he had to recover Nathaniel Drablow’s body from the marsh. With the help of Sam’s car, he did so—the body, partially preserved due to the marsh, was then brought into the house so Arthur could lead the ghost to it! On the one hand, I thought this was a lot of invented nonsense, but on the other, the scenes were so unbelievably full of tension, it seemed well worth it. Finally, Arthur thought it would be a good idea to break into Jennet’s grave, open up her coffin, and put the boy’s body in with her. Great idea!
The ending, of course, was far more direct but no less savage than the book’s.
I really enjoyed watching the film, and while my feeling afterward is that it might not stand up to repeated scrutiny, this is the kind of thing that is worthy to bear the Hammer Horror name.