“The Woman in Black” (1989 vs. 2012): a brief comparative review, with spoilers

| February 21, 2012

My sweet wife and I went to see the new remake of “The Woman in Black”, starring Daniel Radcliffe. We had watched the original (made-for-British-TV) 1989 version when it first came out on video and at least one time since, but it had been many, many years since then. We thought the original was very well done, so we were interested to see how the remake came out.

Well…TWIB-2012 is a decent haunted house story, but ultimately was unsatisfying. So we tracked down a copy of TWIB-1989 — Sandra found a copy for sale on the ‘net somewhere — and we watched it yesterday. Much better, and more chilling, and a more true-to-the-film ending.

The basic premise is that Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor (lawyer) from London in the early 20th century, is sent by his firm to a distant seaside village to the north in order to settle the estate and review the papers of a recently deceased client, an elderly widow who lived in a large house out in the middle of a sea marsh; the causeway out to her house is only passable at certain times of the day, due to the tides, and even then it can be tricky, due to thick sea mists that come up quickly. The local villagers react in a strange way when they find out why he’s there, except for one man, a wealthy local land baron, Sam. As Kipps goes about his duties, he begins to see a woman dressed all in black in different places, a woman who stares back at him. And then he begins to hear strange noises at the widow’s house….

I’ll save more details for the spoilers section below the jump, but it was interesting to note the differences between the two versions. While not as bad, TWIB-2012 is reminiscent of the 1999 remake of “The Haunting” (originally filmed in 1963) in that it tries too hard. In TWIB-1989, Kipps is happily married with two small children; his superior, one of the partners in his law firm, sends him there against his wishes, even though that partner is the one who has always handled this account. When Kipps arrives at the village, folks are generally quite friendly and accomodating, though he gets funny looks when he talks about going out to the widow’s house. He has no trouble arranging transportation there (via horse-drawn wagon), and the wagon-driver — who used to bring the widow her supplies on a regular basis — even shows Kipps how to start up the (oil-powered) generator, so that Kipps has electricity throughout the house. The house itself looks relatively normal, clean, and well-kept; the papers to be reviewed are not that voluminous. The grounds around the house are largely flat, open and bare, stretching away into the surrounding marsh.

By contrast, TWIB-2012 starts with three young girls committing suicide together. It then, post-credits, opens with with Kipps (Radcliffe) holding a straight razor to his own throat. It turns out that he has but one child, a son, and his wife died giving birth to him. When he arrives at work, his superior calls him in and tells him that he is in danger of being let go, due to his poor performance, apparently due to despondency over his wife’s death. [Since the boy appears to be 3 or 4 years old, this raises a serious question as to just how long this despondency has been going on.] The partner orders Kipps to take this matter and tells him that this is his last chance to retain his position. On arriving in the village, Kipps immediately runs into opposition; the inn-keeper claims to have no rooms available, even though a telegram had been sent in advance, but finally grudgingly finds a room for one night. Likewise, the next morning the local solicitor is very unhelpful and tells Kipps he has booked him on a train back to London that very day, with a driver set to take him to the station. The townspeople are very angry and upset that Kipps is there; Kipps has to bribe the driver of the horse-drawn wagon to take him out to the widow’s house instead of the train station. The grounds around the house are wildly overgrown (cf. the trailer above), and the house itself is very run-down, inside and out. And, of course, no electricity. Also, the 2012 version has a subplot in which Kipps sees what appears to be the spirit of his dead wife from time to time, making him wonder about life after death.

In a similar fashion, the supernatural events that start taking place in the house and the village are much more overblown in the 2012 version. This actually has the effect of making the film less creepy and more like every other modern ghost story/haunted house film. What is so effective about the 1989 version is that everyone and everything is pretty normal — except that Kipps keeps seeing the woman in black, and she looks more and more threatening each time, and then things begin to fall apart. While watching one such encounter — on the grounds of the widow’s house — I found myself getting honest-to-goodness gooseflesh on my arms, something that never happened while watching the 2012 version.

Finally, and this is a subtle note, in the 1989 version, no one except Kipps ever sees the woman in black, and we the audience only see her when Kipps sees her. However, the 2012 version uses the convention of showing the woman in black — usually faintly, in the background — at various times when Kipps doesn’t see her and isn’t aware of her. It’s a popular technique for building tension, but it is so overused in horror films these days that it has become a cliche — similar to the cliche of having a dark shape pass right in front of the camera while it is focused on a character some distance away. (That was very effective the first time I saw it, which I believe was in the film “White Noise” — now it just makes me roll my eyes.) In fact, there is probably no modern horror film cliche that this film doesn’t use.

After writing this review, I bought and read the Kindle version of the original 1983 novel (novella, really — it’s pretty short) by Susan Hill. The 1989 version is relatively faithful to the novel, with just one major change — Kipps is single, but engaged, when the events take place — and a few minor changes in events and sequences.  The ending is slightly different, but I’ll discuss that in the spoilers section below. The novel does explain more than the movie does the relationship between the deceased widow and the woman in black.

I highly recommend the 1989 version. The 2012 version, no so much — it’s a decent scary flick, but it’s not the classic that the original is.  Spoilers after the jump.




In both films, Kipps find himself also haunted in the house by a dead child, Nathaniel, ostensibly the young son of the dead widow, but actually the son of the woman in black (who is the widow’s late sister). This young boy died when the horse-and-buggy he was ridding in went off the causeway and sank into the marsh. Also in both films, there is a tie-in between appearances of the woman in black and the death of young children in the village.  The 1989 film does not explain much beyond that; there is one near-fatal accident involving a gypsy child, but no children die.

The 2012 film, by contrast, shows at least two deaths that result the woman in black’s appearance to Kipps — one child drinks lye, while another burns herself to death, each time after having seen the woman themselves. It also makes explicit that the woman in black was forced to give up her son to her sister for adoption due to claimed mental illness, that her rage over that — and her son’s death — is what keeps her spirit around, and that this is why children die when she is seen. It then introduces a subplot very reminiscent of “The Ring”, where Kipps (with help) dives into the quickmud of the marsh, recovers the child’s body (somehow still intact decades later), and brings it into the house so that the woman in black can “find” her son and be at peace.

And now we come to the endings. In the 1989 film, Kipps — after a very rough night at the house — goes back into the village and stays at the inn, where he has a horrific encounter with the woman in black. He awakes days later in the house of Sam (the land baron), having suffered from a complete nervous collapse. Sam lets him know that the house has burned down in the meantime, and so the whole matter is closed. Kipps (and his wife) return to London, and Kipps — after a few more days of rest — goes back to the office. He confronts his superior about the house, but the superior dismisses it all. However, one of the junior clarks informs Kipps that he saw a woman, dressed all in black, standing on the sidewalk in front of the firm’s doors, looking as though she wanted to come in. Meanwhile, Kipps’ suitcase with all the widow’s papers has been delivered and put in Kipps’ office. Kipps confronts his superior again (physically, this time), then goes back, piles the papers around the small fireplace in his office, and sets them and the suitcase on fire, having liberally doused them with kerosene first. Kipps’ office is burned up, with water and fire damage to the rest of the law offices, and Kipps goes home. Some time later — it’s not clear how long, though Kipps seems to be no longer working at the firm — Kipps takes his family on an outing to the countryside, during which they get into a small boat and start rowing on a small lake. Kipps looks up as they are approaching the shore — and sees the woman in black standing in the middle of the lake, looking at him. At that point, a large portion of a tree overhanging the lake breaks off and falls upon the boat and its occupants, killing them all. The end.

In the 2012 version, Kipps is convinced that he has laid the woman in black to rest by ‘reuniting’ her with her dead son. His own son (and his son’s nanny) have come down from London that same night to visit him; he meets them at the train station, tells them that they’re heading back to London immediately, and asks the nanny to go buy their tickets. The nanny does so, but ends up letting go of the boy’s hand — and the boy sees in the woman in black. [Seriously? A nanny standing on a railway platform at night just feet away from the tracks would let go of a young boy’s hand?] The boy climbs down onto the tracks, Kipps jumps down to save him, the train passes — and Kipps find himself and his son on the tracks in an empty, grey version of the train station. He realizes they’re dead — and then he sees his wife’s spirit again. They go to her, embrace, and then all walk off together into a light-filled mist.

The ending makes even less sense, because at the moment of the accident, while the train is passing by, Sam (the land baron) looks through the train windows and sees the woman in black on the other side, along with the spirits of all the dead children (including presumably, his own), and they all look pretty gray and unhappy and unpleasant. So, all these children are damned to haunt the village, but Kipps and his son get a free pass because his wife is already dead and leads them away?

The book’s ending is quite different from either movie in that Kipps is writing this story down probably 20 or or more years after the fact. As noted above, he is engaged at the time of the events at the widow’s house; on returning to London, he and his fiancee marry and have a young son. A few years later, they are on an outing at a park, when the young boy sees a trap-and-horse ride. It can only fit two (besides the driver), so the boy and his mother go on it, as Kipps watches on. As the trap is finishing its circuit through the park and returning to where Kipps is waiting, Kipps suddenly sees the woman in black standing beneath a tree next to the pathway the trap is on.  As the trap passes under the tree, the woman in black steps in front of the horse, somehow spooking it and causing it to run wildly until it and the trap crash into a tree. Kipps’ son is killed; his wife is terribly injured and dies months later. “I had seen the ghost of Jennet Humfrye and she had had her revenge. They asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.”

The end.  ..bruce w..

P.S. Did I really say “brief” in the title of the post?



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About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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