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The Woman in Black: did you jump?

Approved by ATG's PR & Communications Officer, David Bradbury


Hammer’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel launches on DVD today. To mark the event, Momentum Pictures created an experiment to see which is scarier, the film or the 21-year-running West End play. The experiment did not go to plan; but we have got round the technical hitches to give our view on which wins in terms of amount-of-time-spent-behind-cushion

You may have studied it at GCSE and had your wits scared out of you on a trip to see the play; or perhaps you’ve seen the film this year as a Harry Potter fan eager to see Daniel Radcliffe in his first adult role. One way or another, many Londoners have brushed with the disturbing spector of The Woman in Black. Not me though, at least that is until last week, when I had the fortune of watching both play and film.

To mark the launch of the DVD, Momentum Pictures devised an experiment. They invited bloggers and journalists to attend a performance of the play and a film screening fitted with a heart rate monitor to compare the scare factor of the two. I’m sorry to say the experiment didn’t work: the heart rate monitors beeped in the theatre, indicating they’d reached a dangerous heart rate level (around 150bpm), but they did this at a point when the play had not yet reached scary mode — there’s no way our heart rate could have been that high. They failed during the film by generally displaying random-seeming results that did not correspond with the intensity of the screen action, if anything, going down steadily during the tensest moments.

This was unfortunate as the experiment was a good idea. I’m going to do a comparison of the two anyway, bidding farewell to the not-so-fancy technology behind the desired more scientific experiment.

Vital statistics

WiB stage: The West End production is billed as the ‘most terrifying live theatre experience in the world’. In 1987, Robin Hereford was artistic director of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph theatre while Alan Ayckbourn was on a sabbatical at the National Theatre. Hereford wanted to put on a ghost story at Christmas as the final production of the season, but had little money left in the budget. Playwright Stephen Mallatratt proposed adapting Susan Hill’s novel. A year after success in Scarborough, the play transferred to the Lyric, Hammersmith, then to the Strand and finally to Covent Garden’s Fortune, where it is now the second longest-running West End non-musical production after the Mousetrap.

WiB screen: Hammer Films chose the story for adaptation as part of its impressive comeback after a hiatus of more than 30 years. With Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass) as screenwriter and Daniel Radcliffe secured as lead, the film was off to a blessed start.

Scare factor

WiB stage: The common assumption is that film is more likely to frighten than theatre owing to the immersive experience it offers, and its technical capacity and budget for special effects. But many have said that in this case, it’s the play that’s the scarier number. Once the faulty heart rate monitors had been stashed out of earshot and my attention was fully focused on the performance, I did not find myself experiencing feelings of terror exactly. There are jumps aplenty, yes; but I found it was the audience wanting to be scared — fully indulging in a good exaggerated scream on cue for effect.

WiB screen: Officially scary. One question to address is whether the scare factor was lessened for me in the film owing to the fact I’d seen the play just two days before. What I found was that my propensity to jump depended on the shock of the moment and the intensity of the combined visual and sound effects, rather than on whether or not I knew the story.


WiB stage:  What I appreciated most was the play’s construction: a play within a play unfolds as an elderly Arthur Kipps (the story’s central character) attempts to present the horrors he witnessed years ago with the help of a professional actor to coach him. We watch Kipps overcome his anxieties with regard to acting and interpret all the secondary figures in his story while the actor plays him as a younger man. The two men take turns to narrate: sometimes the actor as a straight narrator, sometimes Kipps stepping out of the performance as his present-day self commenting on the events past.

WiB film: An absorbing and enthralling experience. I appreciated the way it stays truer to its period as a classic Hammer Horror of the 50s than as an Edwardian period drama. There are several techniques that will delight lovers of the old film genre; but its frights are sophisticated enough to shock a modern-day viewer out of his/her seat. It should translate well enough to DVD; if you’ve been as slow as me in catching the Woman in Black wave, jump on now: I guarantee you’ll jump at least twice.

Originally posted at http://www.lecoollondonblog.com