Ghost stories are incredibly difficult to pull off. One must maintain throughout a judicious balance between telling too little, and telling too much: tell too little, and the reader feels cheated; tell too much and the sense of mystery, of the unexplained – that sense which is the essence of any good ghost story – dissipates. And the pacing has to be just right: any slight misjudgement in pacing that may pass unnoticed by most readers in other types of fiction can sink a ghost story. I know: I speak as one who has tried his hand at writing ghost stories, but who has been so embarrassed by the results that he has not even kept them tucked away on his hard drive.
None of this prevents there being an entire library of great ghost stories. For many aficionados of the genre (including myself), M. R. James was the acknowledged master: he got it just right, time after time. And, at the risk of being seen merely to be repeating received wisdom, it is hard to think of a better ghost story than The Turn of the Screw by that other James – Henry. And the most renowned ghost story of our own times is, I think indisputably, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. For here, she gets everything just right: it is an enthralling read. Sadly, her subsequent efforts have not maintained this standard: I keep reading them in the hope that she could once again capture the brilliance of her first novel in the genre, but the melancholy truth is that The Mist in the Mirror is not as good as The Woman in Black (although it is still very fine without odorous comparisons); that The Man in the Picture is not as good as The Mist in the Mirror; and that her latest, The Small Hand, is not as good as The Man in the Picture. Indeed, The Small Hand is a prime example of the ghost story that fails because it over-explains: it spends far too much on the reasons behind the haunting – the mere mechanics of the plot – rather than focusing on the haunting itself. It is curious that the author of something so consummately fine as The Woman in Black should fall into such a trap. But no matter. The Woman in Black remains a masterpiece of the genre, and one can only be thankful.
So far, The Woman in Black has formed the basis of a superb stage adaptation; a less well-known but sporadically effective television version from the late 1980s; and now, to much publicity, a film version from a newly revamped (if “revamped” is the word I’m looking for) Hammer Films. In some ways, this is a strange choice, since the Hammer films of old that we all know and love (or, at least, that I, personally, know and love) did not specialise in ghost stories as such: however, as a fan both of Hammer films and of ghost stories, this was a film for which I had to break the habit of half a lifetime, and go to the cinema to see.
Cinema hasn’t really produced too many ghost stories either, once one comes to think of it. Horror stories, yes, but good ghost story films are actually quite rare. Off the top of my head, I can think of The Innocents (which to my mind is as great a cinematic masterpiece as The Turn of the Screw, on which it was based, was a literary one); the original version of The Haunting; and a rather little-known film called The Changeling. No doubt there are a few more I am forgetting now, but really, that isn’t much. For a good ghost film is just as difficult as a good ghost story: the terror must come not from what one sees, but from what one thinks one may see in the next frame. To achieve this, what one sees must be rationed. (Indeed, in The Haunting, one sees nothing at all!) The trick is to plant seeds of suggestion in the viewer’s mind. And that is difficult. That requires far more imagination than mere recourse to special effects.
This film started promisingly. Indeed, some half way through the film I found myself thinking that this is very good indeed. The situation had been well set up; the design of the interior of the haunted house was superb – cluttered, dark and menacing; and the brief glimpses of the supernatural – seen, as M. R. James once put it, in the corner of the retina – were effective and creepy. This, I felt, is how a ghost story should be filmed. But the film didn’t seem to have the courage of its convictions. There’s nothing wrong with moments that make you jump: if well handled, they can be very good indeed. But if you overdo those jumpy moments, it becomes a matter of diminishing returns: once you have already jumped a few times, you become less inclined to jump yet again. The climactic sequence of Susan Hill’s story – as it was in the theatrical adaptation – is an extended sequence where the protagonist finds himself alone in the isolated Eel Marsh House overnight: here, that sequence started off very well, but ended, rather disappointingly, merely in a passage of “jumpy moments” piled on top of each other. As a result, the terror is no longer in what you think you may see next: rather, it is in what you see – and what you see, frankly, is nowhere near as frightening as what you think you might.
Then, afterwards, the pacing goes all to pot. After the long sequence in Eel Marsh House, we needed the tension to come down for a while, and the temperature to settle, if only for a while. But instead, we were taken straight to a house fire, the suicide of a child, and another quite gratuitously unnecessary appearance of the Woman in Black. It was dreadfully misjudged. After the events at Eel Marsh House, the fire and the suicide did not make much impact; and the director seemed to have forgotten how important it is to ration the appearance of the ghost.
Throwing out at this stage all considerations of pacing, the film then continues rather aimlessly. The sequence in which the drowned carriage is pulled out of the marsh is, once again, ill-judged, as the threat in this sequence comes not from the supernatural, but from the marsh itself: in ghost stories, the source of the menace should be kept unchanged, as any sense of menace other than that of the supernatural tends not to register in its own right, and, worse, distracts from what should be at the centre of the story. To compound it all, the film-makers seemed to think that if one ghost is frightening, then ten ghosts must be ten times as frightening: this really isn’t the case. The scene in which the ghosts of all the dead children appear, and in which Dailly sees the ghost of his own dead child (an obvious nod to the story “They” by Rudyard Kipling) may have been effective in a different dramatic context, but here, it merely serves to dissipate the viewer’s attention from the principal point.
And as for the very ending, without giving too much away, it introduces a strain of sentimentality which is out of keeping with the material of the rest of the film. And by this stage, the appearance of the Woman in Black is no longer frightening: we have seen her too often by then, and have become too familiar with her presence. And inevitably, familiarity breeds comfort.
So, it’s a big disappointment after all, I fear – especially after that very fine first half. If only the latter half of the film had the courage of the convictions displayed in the first.