Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Women in Black

A few posts back I wrote about a film screening I went to in Leicester as part of a Hammer revival festival. During the pre-show talk, Mark Gatiss mentioned Hammer's "come-back" feature, The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe. His verdict was generally a positive one, though he added that he still preferred the 1989 version adapted by Nigel Kneale. At the time, I hadn't seen this older film, but I have recently been working my way through all of Kneale's Quatermass series (I wrote an essay mainly on Hammer's film versions of these for my degree, and it was one of the most enjoyable pieces of work I've ever done), and have been looking forward to discovering some of his other work. I expected good things from his Woman in Black, and I wasn't disappointed.

Kneale's version, directed by Herbert Wise, is certainly creepier than the more recent film, which I went to see for my birthday this year. The ghost is deliberately rendered more ambiguous: no one else gets quite so hysterical about it as Arthur Kidd (or Kipps in the novel and the later film), in fact, we're not sure that anyone else has actually seen it, other than the late Mrs Drablow. Whereas in the more recent film, Arthur's presence in Crythin Gifford (the seaside town near to Mrs Drablow's property, Eel Marsh House) seems to increase its child mortality rate, in the earlier version, Arthur successfully saves a young girl's life, and no one in the town dies during the course of the film.

Notably different are the parallel characters of Mr and Mrs Toovey in the 1989 film, and Mr and Mrs Daily in the 2012 film. Although both couples have lost their sons, Elisabeth Daily has a much stronger presence than Mrs Toovey, who has little to do or say. Elisabeth believes steadfastly in the ghost, and has been driven half-mad by the death of her child which she is sure was caused by the ghost, whilst her husband is fervently opposed to such nonsense - despite more evidence for its existence in the later film, Sam Daily will not believe in the ghost, to the point that he comes across as a man in denial, and we are more willing to believe his wife. Sam Toovey, on the other hand, seems to have no more strong opinions either way than his retiring spouse, leaving us with only Arthur's experiences to judge from.

Arthur himself exhibits signs of madness in Kneale's version. The only time he sees the ghost close up, he's in a state of feverish delirium. Later on, rather than being killed by a train as he prepares to go home, he lives to return to London, only to proceed to burn down his office, attack his boss and finally to accidentally drown himself and his family when "haunted" by the ghost on a lake. This family, too, including Arthur's wife and baby, is notably larger: in Hammer's version, Arthur's wife is already dead, and four-year-old Joseph is his only child. This difference in the later film facilitates a disappointingly trite ending, whereby Arthur and Joseph both "pass over" and are reunited with Joseph's mother, rather than simply dying.

Taken together, this differences render the earlier film much more unsettling. While the pace may be slightly slower if you're only used to more modern movies, I don't think this is any bad thing. It builds suspense and fear piece-by-piece, rather than immediately telling its audience what they're meant to be thinking. Partly this is a result of its being a TV film, broadcast over the Christmas period, rather than a big cinema release in February intended to re-launch a studio - this I suppose meant that it didn't have to fight quite so hard for its audience. Nevertheless, I think its fair to say that this style of gradual build-up is dying out, even on television - try, for example, comparing recent episodes of Doctor Who to those from the 60s, 70s and even 80s.

Interestingly, I was told that Nigel Kneale's film played a part in the development of a new theory of ghosts. Apparently his emphasis on the wax cylinder recordings made by Mrs Drablow helped generate ideas about ghosts themselves as recordings of sorts - visual and/or audio "memories" that are somehow encoded or embedded in physical objects, rather than conscious, independent spirits. Without wanting to be too presumptuous, however (to speak for the dead, as it were), I bet that that's an irony that Nigel Kneale - with all his fierce intellect and scepticism - would have appreciated.

In its defence, though, Hammer's Woman in Black is still a fabulous film. It looks beautiful, and is actually remarkably tense and eerie, given the studio's track record for producing a lot of pretty cheesy, melodramatic horror. There are a few traditionally hammed Hammerish aspects: when the ghost rushes at Arthur it's a bit over the top, and the lack of ambiguity is more traditional horror film fare. Still, on the whole, this film is much more akin in style to modern ghost films, and to Hammer's better moments (including the Quatermass films and The Curse of Frankenstein). I'm only curious now to see which film, if either, stays more true to the book.

There were, of course, some similarities between the two films, and one of the most noticeable was that between the performances of both Daniel Radcliffe - who, incidentally, does a surprisingly good job, even of convincing us that he's old enough to be a widower with a four-year-old child - and of his predecessor in the role, Adrian Rawlins. Despite looking very different, the two actors seem very close in manner, tone and expression - both seem to work very well as the "everyman" figure of Arthur Kidd/Kipps. The connection goes deeper than this, however: looking up Adrian Rawlins online, I discovered that he also played James Potter (i.e. Daniel Radcliffe's dad) in the Harry Potter films - now there's a good bit of trivia if ever I saw one.

1 comment:

  1. Daniel Radcliff is one talented man; I saw The Woman in Black last week on my business trip for Dish, and I am fascinated by how well Radcliff portrayed Arthur Kibbs. I am a fan of the 1989 version, but this new is awesome. I was thrilled with every aspect of the film’s creepy storyline; it’s been a while since I’ve seen a good ghost story. The coloring was perfect, cast outstanding, and finally the spook value was awesome. As soon as the second movie comes out, I will be on Dish Online, perfect entertainment for an unexpected layover. Oh, why does it have to take SO LONG for quality sequels?