Herbert Wise directs Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton and David Daker in this horror classic – about a haunting in an Edwardian coastal town.
I was just a little too young and way too horror averse as a child to watch this on its original broadcast on ITV. So it must have been the sole Channel 4 repeat in the nineties when I first experienced this. I’m pretty sure it was programmed then under the billing as something like “the TV movie that terrified a nation”. And though there are minimal shocks and zero gore in this adaptation of Susan Hill’s chilling novella – it works magnificently as an exercise in tension and dread. The few appearance of the titular phantom are impactful, they genuinely shake you if you are engaged with the story. Sure, the restored DVD we just watched somehow imbues just a little too much clarity to Pauline Moran’s spectre. She works better as a grainy shadow glimpsed on a smaller, less defined cathode-ray television screen. Yet the entire milieu of the story is full of paranoia, secrets and isolation. The market town of Crythin Gifford is an inhospitable place where even the kindest souls have been tainted by the tragedy and the curse The Woman represents. Fog rolls off the banks, screams of anguish echo from the past, pathways to safety are consumed by the sea, prejudice informs the callous attitudes of the locals, the children giggle in flocks at funerals. It is an eerie, depressing setting with little sanctuary. Only a brave little hound called Spider seems equipped to handle a week existing there and when he abandons poor Mister Kidd (and us) it feels like the final nail in the coffin for our collective sanity. Even beyond the air of persistent foreboding, there seems to be a greater context of trauma hinted at – the issues of class upheaval and the after-effects of the Great War inveigle their way into the roots of many interactions. This is markedly a society still silently reeling from the shock and violence of the early 20th century and the references to what has occurred in the recent past are tantalising. Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black is one of the great base genre works. By that I mean a work of genre so pure it feels like the definitive text that all other works in a genre are variations of. As haunted house stories go it may not have the twists of The Turn Of the Screw, the mania of The Shining or the relentlessness of The Conjuring but it’s simplicity and traditionalism is matched possibly only by Robert Wise and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting. The book has made for a great West End play and this TV movie… the Hammer / Harry Potter version has its fans… but I very much doubt that’ll be the last adaptation of the great scary story. Every generation surely must spend their own week digging through the secrets of Eel Marsh House.
Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk
We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/