I read Susan Hill’s novel when I was perhaps 10 years old, and it has haunted me ever since. The town of Crythin Gifford and Eel Marsh House have played a part in many-a-nightmare over the years. Chris Wallis’ 1989 ITV adaptation is one of the most chilling television programmes I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. I’ve seen Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation twice. It’s terrifying. I screamed out loud. Suffice to say I’m fairly protective of The Woman in Black. Thus, my concern was that a big-screen version of the story might in some way spoil my (ample) enjoyment of the former incarnations of it.
The Woman in Black has enjoyed unprecedented success – becoming the highest-grossing British horror in the last 20 years. It didn’t come as a huge surprise, therefore, when, earlier this week, Hammer Films announced plans to produce a sequel; the dubiously titled The Woman in Black: Angels of Death. Filled with disgust at such a thought, I realised the time had come for me to bite the bullet and watch.
Imagine my delight, then, when I genuinely enjoyed the film! Daniel Radcliffe (who I’m warming to more and more of late in his post-Potter role as social advocate and self-exposing thorn in the side of the gutter press) is superbly cast as Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who travels from London to Crythin Gifford to sort the possessions of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, whose rambling mansion, Eel Marsh House, provides the setting for much of the film’s drama. For Eel Marsh is haunted by a mysterious woman, dressed all in black (you see?) whose appearance signals tragedy among the town’s children.
Certainly, screenwriter Jane Goldman has taken liberties with the plot, but there is a sincerity and truthfulness that honours the film’s source material, and the much-expanded Crythin Gifford scenes take on an edge of The Wickerman’s Summerisle. The ending, too, is altered, but I didn’t mind. It seemed a justified and considered variation – though the novel’s original ending (or, indeed, the play’s) might have more readily paved the way for a sequel.
Hammer’s last output, the 2011 Wake Wood, was a pretty farcical variation on the Wickerman theme. It was not an enticing advertisement for the re-launch of the iconic studio. I can understand, therefore, why they are keen to take advantage of The Woman in Black’s success. However, I cannot reconcile myself with the proposed form the film will take. The Woman in Black: Angels of Death will tell the tale of a couple (or, depending on the reports, a family) who purchase Eel Marsh House as their new home. Bad move. The crucial power of the tale is its dual themes of psychological loneliness and physical isolation – filling the house with people will destroy the silence and stillness that the first film so successfully rendered. Further, Angels of Death is set to take place 40 years after The Woman in Black, dropping the narrative right at the end of WWII. I don’t believe a country, and people, who have been ravaged by war, the loss of loved ones, bombing raids and evacuations, will be as easily scared by a rocking chair and a wind-up music box as the original’s young Edwardian lawyer.
Since its publication 29 years ago in 1983, The Woman in Black has survived (and thrived) through numerous incarnations. There has never been a sequel. Despite assurances that Susan Hill is contributing to the plot of Hammer’s forthcoming work of sacrilege, I can’t bear to think of Jennet Humfrye franchised into oblivion like some mawkish spectre, dancing through the decades in her mourning veil while the world progresses around her. The Woman in Black: Mission to Mars? It may only be a matter of time. To Hammer, I issue this warning: she will never forgive you. Never forgive you. NEVER FORGIVE YOU.