The Woman In Black: why did Britain's scariest horror film disappear?

Andrew Male
·7-min read

“I saw it when it was first shown,” says the film critic Kim Newman. “Christmas Eve with my mum and dad. We all just wanted to watch a spooky ghost story. But there were after-effects, a mood that carried on after the film ended. You wake up next morning, Christmas Day, you’re still scared …”

He laughs darkly. “The Woman in Black ruined Christmas.”

Few horror films have acquired the cult reputation of Herbert Wise’s TV production of The Woman in Black. Adapted by visionary British sci-fi screenwriter Nigel Kneale from Susan Hill’s 1983 novella, it stars a 31-year-old Adrian Rawlins as Edwardian solicitor Arthur Kidd, sent to settle the estate of an eccentric widow, Mrs Drablow, on the north-east coast of England. There, in a remote house at the end of a shingle causeway, he is tormented by terrifying noises and cries – and appearances from a tall woman dressed in black (Pauline Moran), who comes to exert a malevolent hold over his life.

First broadcast on ITV, at 9pm Christmas Eve 1989, it haunted all who watched it, thanks in part to Wise’s tense, economical direction, and one of the greatest jump-scares in the history of horror. “[It created] a genuine physical reaction,” wrote Nancy Banks-Smith in the Guardian, “as if one layer of your skin had shifted over another.”

The film was a hit with critics and audience alike, yet while Hill’s book went on to sell millions and become a set GCSE text, and Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation began a West End run in 1989 that was halted by Covid-19, Wise’s film slid into relative obscurity.

After briefly surfacing on WH Smith’s own-brand VHS label in 1991 and screening on Channel 4 in 1994, it disappeared. Partly owing to its scarcity a mystique grew around it, with copies passed from hand to hand on dubbed VHS and hooky DVDs. In later years, it has made fleeting illegal appearances on YouTube, accompanied by comments speculating darkly on the reasons for its disappearance.

Adrian Rawlins in The Woman in Black.
Adrian Rawlins in The Woman in Black. Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

The League of Gentlemen creators are vocal fans: Reece Shearsmith has called it “the most terrifying programme I’ve ever seen”, while Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro cites it in his list of favourite supernatural films. So what are the reasons for its enduring power? Why did it disappear? And why, after all this time, is it coming back?

Andy Nyman, co-writer of the long-running stage-play Ghost Stories and its 2017 film adaptation, has a particular interest in the film, as it gave him his first ever acting role, aged 23, as a young office clerk.

“It will always remain special,” he says. “A huge inspiration to me and Jeremy when writing Ghost Stories was the way Herbie [Wise] creates this drab, ordinary sense of despair with long, elegant single shots. But another important detail is Rawlins’ performance as Arthur Kidd. He has boyish likability, a good man who does nothing wrong. It’s inexplicable anything bad should happen to him, but it does.”

Rawlins agrees. “You grow to like my character,” says the 62-year-old star of Chernobyl and the Harry Potter films. “When the bad things happen there’s a part of you thinking, ‘You can’t do that!’ There’s a famous point in the film and even though I was in it, I’m watching it, and going, ‘Oh my God! No! That’s not right!’”

Much of the film’s power lies in Moran’s portrayal of the woman in black herself, particularly the wordless, withering glares of hatred she directs at Rawlins’ character. “I was cast for my ability to convey malevolence, with no warmth at all,” says Moran, now a sprightly 72. “In those days I was quite pre-Raphaelite and ethereal. There’s a sadness in there, and a pure hate for what’s being done to her. I tried to convey what’s happening in her mind.”

By the conventions of the modern horror film, the woman in black is seen rarely and – with one big exception – from a distance. “I deliberately didn’t show her close up,” the late Wise said in 2015, “because then the audience can construct a face which is horrible to you, your personal horror.”

“After the film came out Susan Hill sort of dismissed it,” says Moran. “I suppose she felt it became more Nigel Kneale’s version, but Nigel knows what he is doing. He wrote Quatermass and The Stone Tape.”

“There were some arbitrary changes I didn’t like,” admits Susan Hill in an email. “I thought it was weird to change [some of] the names of characters and even the sex of the dog. But I didn’t know anything about adaptations then.”

“Nigel was a huge HG Wells fan,” explains Newman, “and he was deeply offended that Susan Hill named her lead character Kipps after the Wells novel, so he changed it to Kidd. But he made so many brilliant technical changes for TV, including putting the biggest, most famous scare just before an ad break. It’s probably the most necessary ad break in the history of television.”

Related: The scariest horror films ever – ranked!

Because of her objections, many imagined Hill was the reason behind the film’s disappearance after 1991. Not so, she says: “I haven’t owned the rights since they first went to ITV. None of this has anything to do with me.”

Speaking in 2015, Chris Burt, producer of the 1989 film, said: “It was really bizarre. The rights were owned by three film technicians, a makeup artist, a costume designer and an assistant director. They couldn’t get [the project off the ground] so I offered to come in with them. I never understood [why it never received a DVD release] but there was allegedly trouble between those three technicians and [distributor] Central.”

In fact, the trail went quiet until the Hammer Films company was revived in 2007 and decided to remake The Woman in Black for a new audience. “We acquired the rights from a company called Talisman, a guy called Richard Jackson,” explains Hammer CEO Simon Oakes. “There’s no great mystery there. He just hadn’t had a decent offer until we came along. With that came what you might call ‘blocking rights’: the legal right not to have competing versions. You’d be mad to have the television version out on DVD while the theatrical version is still on the market.”

Written by Jane Goldman, directed by James Watkins and starring Daniel Radcliffe in his first film after Harry Potter, Hammer’s remake of The Woman in Black grossed $129m worldwide and became the most successful British horror film of all time, even giving rise to a 2014 sequel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death. With that came a renewed interest in the original.

Drab despair … Herbert Wise’s original.
Drab despair … Herbert Wise’s original adaptation. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

“Tim Beddows [at Network Distributing] got in touch with me about releasing the 1989 version on DVD,” says Oakes. “I’m happy to let it happen now because it’s not going to affect our DVD or streaming release. It’s fine. It’s part of the franchise now.”

Beautifully restored to a cinema-quality print, and finally available for all to see, Herbert Wise’s The Woman in Black can now take its rightful place as one of the greatest and scariest British horror films of all time. And arguably one of the most influential.

“One thing worth pointing out,” says Newman, “is that the woman in black is one of the few English ghosts who is not tied to her location. Also, in his adaptation, Kneale omits all her motivation. In that sense, she prefigures those characters from Japanese horror films like Ring. She’s a malevolent, non-specific spirit.”

Even Hill has finally come round to the adaptation. “It is very frightening,” she says. “Ever since it’s first transmission I have been asked if it will ever be shown again. Now it is. And when anyone complains that ‘it has changed the book’, my answer is always the same. Of course it hasn’t … the book is still there for everyone to read – and quite unchanged!”

  • The Woman in Black is available on Blu-ray exclusively from networkonair.com from 10 August. Interviews with Herbert Wise and Chris Burt came from We Are the Martians: The Legacy Of Nigel Kneale (ed Neil Snowdon, PS Publishing).