The Woman in Black

by Charlie Largent Oct 17, 2023

The Woman in Black
1989 / 103 Mins. / 1.33: 1
Starring Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton, Pauline Moran
Written by Nigel Kneale
Directed by Herbert Wise

CineSavant Revival Screening – Halloween Edition

Born and raised in Victoria’s England, Miss Jessel and Janet Goss were women who loved too well and paid the price. They shared other qualities too—the most conspicuous being that while they’re both dead, they refuse to stay that way. Each dressed in black crepe from head to toe, their prime directive is to raise the hackles of any poor soul who lays eyes on them, and at that they excel—they’re professional hackle-raisers. But there the similarities end—Miss Jessel, who haunted the halls of Bly Manor in 1961’s The Innocents, is a forlorn and even timid soul. Ms. Goss is not.

The spirit of Janet Goss roams the marshes—and anywhere else she damn well pleases—in Crythin Gifford, a perennially chilly village on the northeastern coast of England. She’s usually seen from a distance, though she has a habit of appearing at close range when you least expect her. In England she is infamous as The Woman in Black, an ITV production that premiered at 9:30 PM on Christmas Eve in 1989. Based on Susan Hill’s book, adapted by Nigel Kneale, and directed by Herbert Wise, it’s recommended that first-time viewers experience this Yuletide chiller on a sunny Summer afternoon with all the lights on… but that probably won’t help.

An attorney named Arthur Kidd has made the journey from London to Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of his late client, a widow named Alice Drablow who lived, until recently, in the delightfully named Eel Marsh House. While he concentrates on connecting the loose ends of the family’s business, Kidd finds the villagers reluctant to discuss the Drablows or the lonely old  manor they called home. Kidd’s intermediary, a solicitor named Pepperell, is similarly circumspect—some would say frightened—but he’s obligated to accompany Kidd to Alice’s funeral.

Except for the reverend, the altar boys, and the two lawyers, it’s an empty chapel. So it’s easy for Kidd to notice a visitor stationed at the back of the church, a lonely woman “dressed in deepest black, in the style of full mourning.” The young man sneaks one more glance, but the lady has vanished. While Kidd is mildly intrigued by this vision, Pepperell is terrified.

Kidd himself remains puzzled but unterrified and sets off to Eel House in the company of a Mr. Keckwick, a jack of all trades who tended to Alice in her final days. Viewed from across the marshes, Eel House more than lives up to its name, a ramshackle brick mansion covered by a foul moss and a perpetual mist that at times resembles a shroud. The grounds can only be entered when the pathway that connects them to the mainland is accessible—that narrow road has a name, “Nine Lives Causeway” and it’s usually underwater, making Eel Marsh a virtual fortress of solitude.

Kidd sets to work, scrutinizing the house and the ruined cemetery behind the estate, when a silent alarm breaks his reverie; standing very still among the tombstones is the woman in black. Kidd is frozen by the sight but this gorgon proves alarmingly mobile—as she slinks closer, Kidd, like any sane human being, races back into the house.

The home offers no consolation—the rooms are cramped and cluttered and but for the hobbies of the family matriarch, Eel Marsh would be nothing but a mausoleum of bric a brac and faded furniture. The late Mr. Drablow furnished the house with “newfangled things” like electric lights and a phonograph equipped with wax cylinders for recording. Alice Drablow used that contraption to record her own story—and her sister Janet’s.

Janet had a child out of wedlock, a baby named Nathaniel. To protect the family’s reputation, Alice seized the boy and adopted him. One day Janet stole him back, using a rickety pony trap to make her escape—but the mist and the marshes proved too much and mother and son were drowned. “I will not be feared of my own kin”, says Alice on those recordings, but it didn’t stop her late sister from terrorizing her own sibling or the parents of Crythin Gifford.

Janet is a vindicative spirit, her child was horribly killed so now she makes periodic visits to the village to settle the score. With each of her appearances, another child dies. A dark-haired waif playing too near a woodsman’s wagon was to be Goss’s latest victim but Kidd was able to save the girl. Ms. Goss does not take kindly to her plans being thwarted and now she has set her sights on the lawyer—and will keep at him till she’s satisfied.

The big “moments” in The Woman in Black are as hair-raising as any William Castle spook fest, but Castle’s shenanigans, though the most elementary of shocks, were fun. Wise’s film is not, and only because it’s faithful to the character of Janet Goss; the undying rage she feels at mortal beings, young and old, but especially the young, is palpable. Kidd described his first encounter with her; “she wasn’t just looking, she was hating.” At least Castle’s ghosts seemed to be having a great time in the afterlife.

If Goss will show no mercy, the director Wise doles it on, the portraits of Kidd, his family, and yes, even Janet Goss, are empathetic and tender. A faded daguerreotype found by Kidd shows a lovely young Janet, posing shyly in better days, which makes her fate all the more poignant—if no less terrifying. Being a British production the acting is unsurprisingly top notch. Adrian Rawlins is immediately likeable as the boyish Kidd, and Bernard Hepton is a blessing as the compassionate land baron Sam Toovey, a man who keeps his head while all others are losing theirs.

And Pauline Moran… well, Ms. Moran played the Woman in Black. She is unforgettable, and like Christopher Lee in 1958’s Dracula, she made a lasting impression while having very little screen time (her on-screen appearances in The Woman in Black may amount to three minutes tops). The lovely and charming Ms. Moran is best known these days as David Suchet’s secretary in ITV’s Piorot.

The Woman in Black was released on a serviceable DVD by BFS Productions in 2000—it was framed at the proper 1:33:1 with a decent image but has been out of print for decades. Fingers crossed The Woman in Black gets a proper Blu ray release someday… she gets cranky when she’s ignored for too long.

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Wayne Schmidt

Netwerk in the U.K. has released a blu-ray of it. Don’t know if it’s region locked or not, and although I haven’t seen it reports are that it’s a significant improvement over the dvd.

Pearce Duncan

It’s a significant improvement over the dvd, which was a PAL to NTSC transfer. It is locked to region B, at least according to the cover, and as Network have gone out of business it might be getting hard to find…


You make me want to see this!

Glenn Erickson

We were so enthusiastic about this one, we wanted to cover it even though we had no review in hand to review. That doesn’t help disc collectors, but I cover stuff people can’t access sometimes myself. And hey, it’s Halloween so no apologies here!

Wayne Schmidt

Surprisingly I see Amazon has it for HD streaming or purchase. No blu-ray purchase option, however. But if someone wants to check it out it’s at least a way to do so at this time.

Jeffrey Nelson

I bought the Network UK Blu on eBay. Can’t wait!


I remember seeing this on PBS decades ago. It was indeed very good.

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