I recently watched ‘The Woman In Black’. I’d read Susan Hill’s book many years ago and the play, a cheap two-hander popped into the Fortune Theatre to fill a programming gap, has now been running half as long as ‘The Mousetrap’, thereby closing off that lovely little theatre forever.
I can see why it’s a success. Every possible Victorian ghost story trope is laid on with a trowel; a secluded mansion, a bereaved husband, dead children, dimly lit rooms, creaking doors, creepy old toys, rolling mists, a veiled woman, rhubarbing locals who warn the hero away; it’s a sort of greatest hits package, an elegant throwback which was beyond parody even in the 1950s, and a very efficient one which appealed to newbies in such numbers that it became a huge US hit for Hammer, which is music to my heart.
But what the film does lack is any real resonance, anything oblique, off-kilter or unresolved. It’s solid, safe and neat, not helped by a script as flat as the film’s landscape from the proficient, ubiquitous Jane Goldman, Hollywood’s favourite adaptor of brands. However, Goldman (or perhaps the director) did allow for something special – a long centre section of wordless creeping about that reminded me of Freddie Francis’s ‘The Skull’. The film’s other saving grace is a superb performance from Daniel Radcliffe, who appears genuinely bereft and haunted throughout.
This set me thinking about successful ghost stories on film, which are few. If I had to pick five, they would be:
1. The Innocents
2. The Others
3. The Orphanage
4. The Haunting
In fifth place it’s hard to choose between Dark Water, The Skeleton Key, Burnt Offerings or The Ring.
For years my agent tried to sell a script (which I still have, if anyone’s interested) about a viral ghost moving from one blood-relative to another. Perhaps now is the time to dig it out again.
And here’s a book that should be filmed: ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ by Marghanita Laski haunted my nights. Melanie, a young mother recovering from tuberculosis, is moved from her bed to a Victorian chaise-longue she bought in a junk shop.
Falling asleep, she awakes in another sickened body in an earlier time, surrounded by solicitous strangers. The sights and smells of the Victorian era are seen through Melanie’s modern senses as she tries to understand her plight. The connecting bridge between the two eras of 1953 and the mid-1800s seems to be the chaise-longue itself, but Melanie cannot return because her earlier failing body keeps her trapped in the chair, and she is equally held in place by the repression of the times. Eerie and disturbingly open to interpretation, the novel is a forgotten gem.