Thursday 12 November 2009

One Of Those Moments - "The Woman In Black"

The Woman In Black (1989 - Herbert Wise)

Previous posts in this series have concentrated on moments of heartfelt emotion, but I thought it was time to look at a different kind of moment - one that kinda stops your breathing for a second, sends a chill down the old spine and raises the hairs on your arms.

Mike over at Mellotron Sounds recommended The Woman In Black to me as a good addition to my horror viewing for the month of October. Though I missed that window, I caught up with it just this past week. He was right - it's a solid creepy ghost story.

Starting out very much like a British turn-of-the-century period drama, the story starts to delve into the murky waters of a particular incident that occurred in the marsh surrounding the mansion of a recently passed away old woman. The lawyer responsible for cleaning up the estate's affairs makes a trip to the town nearby and discovers a population of people not overly eager to discuss the mansion - especially when he mentions his sighting of a woman in black at the funeral. There also appear to be an inordinate amount of children's gravestones in the local cemetery. The central performance by Adrian Rawlins isn't quite strong enough to withstand all the screen time he has, but the story is intriguing and contains some disquieting moments.

After returning from the mansion and several "encounters" with its remaining presences, the young lawyer is resting in his hotel bed when he is finds a little toy soldier which has dogged him the last few days. He feels that the ghost of a young boy named Nathaniel has come to visit and thinks that perhaps the little boy wants to show himself. He asks with a smile "Nathaniel?":

A shadow looms over him and in response to the question he gets this:

The stills don't quite get across the "Holy crap" feeling I got when I saw it. The slow movement towards the camera is matched with a piercing, eerie scream that is unsettling in how relentless it is. There's a couple of cutaways to the solicitor's frightened reaction (as per the top screencap), but otherwise that hovering woman keeps coming closer and closer and won't stop screaming. Originally made for and aired on British TV, I can imagine numerous households cringing and recoiling on their couches.

It's a bit reminiscent of this scene from Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Retribution (though the sound field is used in a different manner). A direct, unwavering gaze that slowly but steadily approaches you with a feeling that it might actually go through you. That's a hair-raising moment.


Mike Cavaliere said...

Hey, there it is! The Woman in Black!

Glad you enjoyed it, Bob. That scene had the same affect on me. I was actually watching it with a friend and we were both kind of freaking out, getting that nervous "Oh my god!" laugh going on. My friend even went so far as to put a hand over his line of sight. "Relentless," that's definitely the right word.

Like you mentioned in your write-up, though, the overly-traditional ghost story elements did get in the way a bit for me. Scenes like the lawyer talking to a local about the old house, then asking directly about the woman and the local saying something like, "ahem...can you pass the salt?" instead of ever answering. That can get old. But you definitely watch a movie like this for the spooks. And you gotta respect being able to accomplish them w/ so little makeup or effects.

As for "Retribution." I just watched Pulse the other night and liked it without loving it. Don't get me wrong, there were parts I was crazy about (the slow-motion movement of the specters; the *arcade scene*). But...I don't know. Maybe it's b/c I watched it tired. Would you recommend Retribution? I think I've officially begun something of a foreign horror obsession (spawned from A Tale of Two Sisters, which is still on my mind). Maybe I should do a marathon on a particular director?

Any words o' wisdom you have, I'll be more than open to. Thanks for the link!

Mike said...

Wow... Just realized how long that comment was. Sorry!

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Mike...Sorry for not answering right away.

First of all, no worries on the lengthy comment. Loved it! Thanks again for the recommendation of TWiB.

Too bad you didn't love "Pulse" - I think it's brilliant myself (I should be doing a full review soon for the Doomsday marathon over the RowThree). I would indeed recommend "Retribution", but it certainly can divide audiences. It has some of those great Japanese ghost segments, uses colour and sound very effectively and has some really arresting moments. But it is also quite gritty at times and if you don't buy into the premise and the ghost, there are some scenes that might induce laughter. It works for me, but not for others.

Kurosawa is a favourite of mine though, so I'm biased. definitely seek out "Cure" (terrific serial killer crime thriller with a difference) and "Seance" (another ghost story that has some incredibly effective scenes - one in particular where the camera lingers on a hallway where the light from outside keeps changing due to clouds, creating an eerie atmosphere).

I like takashi Shimizu as well - director of the Ju-On films. Ju-On: The Grudge is particularly effective, but again you need to buy into the concept of the black haired ghosts. He also did "Reincarnation" which was also a solid creep fest with some disturbing overtones.

Italian horror is another area to explore - not sure how much of the "masters" you've checked out: old Argento, Bava (my fave) and Fulci. Outside of those, try to find "The House With Laughing Windows".

Thai horror has numerous entries as well though I haven't seen many. "Shutter" is good, just make sure you get the Thai one and not the remake. Both "Alone" and "4bia" are great fun, but not available in R1 (I haven't checked to see if there are English subbed copies in R0 or other regions).

"Tombs Of The Blind Dead" is an interesting entry from Spain - I think the copy I saw had horrendous dubbing, but there still some chill inducing scenes when those blind and dead dudes go riding on their horses...Spain of course also delivered "[rec]" which I thought was terrific. I haven't been a big fan of the recent spate of French horror films, but if you like gruesome and intense, they may be up your alley.

That's all I got for now...

bluepillnation said...

I know this is a bit of an old post, and I hope you won't mind me deconstructing the technical aspects of the scene further, but the reason the wail is so effective is because it's about 0.5dB louder than any dialogue or music in the entire movie, and there is no music - just the screech.

Listen carefully and you'll note that it is the same horrendous wail from the "pony and trap accident" montage from earlier in the film - presumably the sound of her watching helplessly as her son drowns in the marsh - as a revenant she cannot communicate directly (as her sister's wax cylinder recordings testify):

"Last night I was wakened before my clock struck three.
Much tumult in the other rooms.
I called out using her name,
but no answer.
I think she cannot answer."

And yes, my attempts to analyse the scene *are* an attempt to banish the utter terror I felt when I saw it for the first time as a lad of 13!

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi bluepillnation - no worries about the comment to an old post - I'm glad you found it! I'm actually hopeful that a few more people might stumble upon it with the release of the new Daniel Radcliffe film.

Excellent points about the sound...I love how they used it here - like you said, an elevated volume for the scream, no sudden blaring music, no other music or sound in the background and a the scream being a sound from earlier in the film. The best horror movies know how to use sound without pummeling you with it.

I have an 11-year-old and there's no way I'm gonna show him that scene - it would freak him out for, well, I guess at least as long as you've been freaked out by it...B-)

Thanks again!