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Then vs Now: Comparison of The Woman in Black

This article will explore the differences between the old and the new versions of The Woman in Black. It will not take The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (2014) into consideration because it tells a different story from the original and because it was an incredibly boring waste of time. Instead, the comparison will focus on the technical work, story, cast and makeup of The Woman in Black (1989) and The Woman in Black (2012).

The aim is to be able to reason why one is better, or not, than the other. If you liked either of them, I encourage you to watch the other one and, of course, to keep reading if you want to figure out which one’s best.

Context

The Woman in Black (2012) has been a favourite of mine ever since I got into horror cinema. It might have been the old British atmosphere or seeing familiar faces among the cast, but it is the type of film that scares me to death while also giving off a certain feeling of…cosiness?

This is why I was so excited, after the second instalment fiasco, to find out that there was an older version of this film, starring none other than Adrian Rawlins, better known by his role as Harry Potter’s dad, James Potter. Ain’t it funny the turns that life takes?

Comparison between the protagonist of the latest version of The Woman in Black with that of the first.
Fig. 1. On the left, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) from The Woman in Black (2012). On the right, Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) from The Woman in Black (1989). Sources: The Woman in Black (Herbert Wise, 1989) and The Woman in Black (James Watkins, 2012).

Of course, I started doing some research to watch it asap and the result got me baffled. I never could have pictured that such an old film would still be so scary and so good!

The gist of it is the same: lawyer goes to a recently-deceased widow’s mansion to organise all her documents and put her house on sale. When he gets to the village he is accosted by a mysterious woman dressed in black like a mourner.

However, both stories add their own twists and details.

Excess or omission

The newer version has its focus on the children and the psychological toll that the curse of the woman in black has taken on them, their family and neighbours; while the older version only shows the villagers enough for the spectator to know that there is something sketchy going on and that the woman in black must be a bad omen since people get very tense when she is mentioned.

The way people avoid talking about her in the most subtle of ways instead of getting defensive or aggressive makes the matter way more mysterious, alarming and frightening.

Two men dressed in suits and hats turn their backs to the woman in black in a graveyard.
Fig. 2. Local solicitor Pepperell (John Cater) stressfully telling Arthur Kidd to not look at the Woman in Black (Pauline Moran). Source: The Woman in Black (Herbert Wise, 1989).

What about the children?

Another big difference between the films is the appearance, and lack thereof, of the children. In The Woman in Black (1989), the children are barely shown and all of them are alive. In the newer version, you see all of the kids’ deaths and their ghosts appear from time to time.

While a spooky child roaming around or simply staring at you with black eyes from his creepy little stature is definitely one of the scariest things you can confront in the night, the twist made in the older version is even worse. Arthur Kidd, the aforementioned lawyer protagonist of this story, thinks that he is getting messages from Nathaniel, the woman in black’s dead son. He thinks that he is trying to tell him something, to help him in some way. Then, in the only jumpscare of the film, it is revealed that it was the woman in black messing with him all this time.

A man screaming in his bed, covering his eyes with his hands.
Fig. 3. Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) trying to protect himself from the Woman in Black. Source: The Woman in Black (Herbert Wise, 1989).

That is another big difference. For people like me who don’t enjoy loud noises too much, the older version is significantly better. It has but one scream, the rest of the film is composed of very eerie music and reasonably-volumed conversations. Additionally, it doesn’t go too deep into the child’s story or trying to help the woman in black. In this 1989 version, it is assumed from the beginning that she was crazy in life and so she is still crazy in death. This mentality avoids a whole lot of sentimental nonsense and showcases a much more realistic approach to the situation: destroy and run.

Top performances

As for the cast, both films are spot on. It was a generalised worry that Daniel Radcliffe wouldn’t be able to be perceived as any other than Harry Potter. To be honest, it is weird to see him as a dad during the first few minutes of the film. Nevertheless, in a matter of minutes you completely forget that he ever was the boy who lived and totally believe him as the widower lawyer he plays in this film. Both protagonists, their friends in the village and women in black are played by actors delivering very talented performances. Were we to only compare both by this criteria, the decision of which one is better would be nearly impossible.

Two young men in suits talking to the protagonist of the story.
Fig. 4. Rolfe (Andy Nyman) and Jackie (Steven Mackintosh), the clerks, talking to Arthur Kidd. Source: The Woman in Black (Herbert Wise, 1989).

Not too sound

It’s time to shift the focus onto a more technical part of the film now. The main differences are in the light configuration and sound composition. As briefly mentioned before, the 2012 Woman in Black is way louder. This implies lots of yelling and strong sound effects to enhance the jumpscares as well as a soundtrack that rivals at times with the action, guiding the spectators feelings, attention and reactions. In the other version, while the soundtrack is almost the same (a very nice touch), it is more discreet and quiet, adding to the mystery of the atmosphere but never overpowering the story itself.

Lights out

As for the light, horror has become more and more dark throughout the years. To the point where lots of films are really hard to watch even in a completely dark room. It wouldn’t be the first time that I find myself in the situation where, even with my glasses on and watching a film at the cinema, I am unable to see the source of the fear. I know that I am supposed to be scared because of the music but I can’t distinguish absolutely anything that is going on.

A train crossing the fields in the night.
Fig. 5. Train to Crythin Gifford crossing the fields in the night.
Source: The Woman in Black (James Watkins, 2012).

The Woman in Black (2012) has plenty of darkness, although thankfully not as exaggerated as it is in newer horror films. However, there is a stark contrast when comparing both films. Most of the story in The Woman in Black (1989) happens in broad daylight. This is striking if you are used to horror = darkness, but what is even more shocking is the fact that you will be just as, if not more, scared as you are while watching the darker version.

The ability to provoke fear without the need for dark corners from which monsters can jump out is proof of true talent. Especially when taking into consideration that the makeup effects were not as evolved as they are now. This results the amount of light being very easily detrimental to the aim of scaring.

Conclusion

Both films have their pros and their cons. However, it feels like the new one is trying to pre-chew all the information for you before you consume it while the old version leaves hints of what’s going on and waits for you to figure it out. Additionally, The old version doesn’t rely on darkness or incredible special effects to scare you. For these reasons, the old version feels more artistic, and its ability to scare, more impressive.

Both films are definitely worth watching, but nowadays the first one will be a more unique experience and definitely the best choice for people who, like me, have trouble finding things in the dark and hate loud sounds.

A woman dressed in black in a church.
Fig. 6. The Woman in Black at the church during her sister’s funeral.
Source: The Woman in Black (Herbert Wise, 1989).

Advice to take from these movies:

  • Horror doesn’t need to be hard to watch, just properly presented.
  • If you’re going to burn something, make sure there are no traces left (and maybe don’t burn what’s left in your place of work?).
  • Don’t mess with small villages’ folklore… Just in case, you know?
A fat middle-aged man beckoning his children inside the house.
Fig. 7. A father taking his children inside the house so they are safe from the Woman in black. Source: The Woman in Black (James Watkins, 2012).

What’s your take? Have you watched one or both of them? Would you add anything to the comparison? Don’t hesitate to let me know your opinion on them in the comments section below or leave a message in my contact page! For more reviews and cinema-related articles check out the rest of my blog! 😀

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