James Watkins; or where do we go after a perfect debut?


James Watkins’s 2008 debut feature Eden Lake offered a gloriously nihilistic view of English Chavs (those that are Council Housed and Actively Violent). In the film, couple Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and Steve (a pre-I’m in everything Michael Fassbender) head to a disused quarry for a hopefully romantic weekend away, where instead of solitude and animals and stuff, they encounter a loutish group of Chavs who are intent on ruining Jenny and Steve’s weekend.

Upon release in the UK, the feature won applause for its wickedly realistic portrayal of Chavs, and of the precise ‘moment’ when we, us, anyone can sense a situation becoming violent. The turn of events which leads to the films shocking ending are realistic and instinctive, with each event occurring naturally after the other. Not only does this render what is happening on screen to be intensely believable, but it sets the feature apart from normal ‘this shit is getting real’ type of films (Very Bad Things, Fargo, etc). Eden Lake did wicked business in the UK, earning the mantle of a cult film ‘not for the faint of heart’ whilst announcing the arrival of a remarkable talent, James Watkins, a young director whose nihilistic vision ranked him amongst the best of the ’Splatter Pack’

Ol' James.

Soon after Eden Lake’s release, Watkins was headhunted as a director for the highly anticipated remake of The Woman In Black, a not particularly well know television movie from the 1980’s. Joining the crop of young, supremely talented foreign filmmakers who have been poached to direct American features – such as Alexandra Aja, who followed up his amazing debut High Tension with The Hills Have Eyes, and Dennis Iliadis, who followed up Havoc with the horrific The Last House on the Left –  Watkins’s skills have been snapped up to bring an updated version of this criminally overlooked film to the big screen.

Yet in a world where Hollywoodized (aka butchered) remakes are hitting the screens like white on rice, it seems strange that the original ‘Woman in Black’, and the novel upon which it is based, would be unknown and virtually overlooked amongst ‘scary stuff’ discussions. The current wave of remakes are often based on classics, prompting the word ‘unnecessary’, yet The Woman in Black, predicted for release in 2011, seems to have come from nowhere.


the original poster

The novel itself was released only a few years prior to its adaptation. Written by crime novelist Susan Hill, the story was crafted as both a homage to the writers Hill admired whilst growing up, such as Edgar Allen Poe, Ambrose Bierce and Henry James, and as an attempt on her own behalf to write an old fashioned, scary ghost story.

And she succeeded. At a short 150 pages, the novella packs enough of a scary and emotional wallop to fill a thousand books. Set in the late nineteenth century, the story involves Arthur Kidd, a young, freshly naïve solicitor who, as a first assignment, is sent to settle the estate of a recently deceased widow in the seaside town of Crythin. Once there, Arthur realises that there is more to this assignment than originally thought; the locals are reluctant to discuss the house or help him in any way, and he is alone and secluded whilst working in the property due to a high tide which cuts off the house from the mainland. From there, things start to go bump in the night. He hears children’s laughter and furniture is thrown around, and a mysterious woman, dressed all in black, begins to watch and follow Arthur’s every move. At first he mistakes her for a local, but soon he realises that she, or it, is a malevolent and evil force that becomes fixated on ruining the lives of its latest conquest. At first it was Arthur’s client, who the Woman in Black forced to live alone and apart from her family, and now it is Arthur, who she (or it) will follow until his life is ruined.


your mum

The stage show adaptation of The Woman in Black has received a largely uninterrupted theatre run since its initial release in the mid 1980’s (ironically, Melbourne hosted the play at the CBD’s Comedy Theatre a few months before I started working as an usher, a job which would have had me see the show for free).

The 1989 Telly-movie – directed by Hubert Wise (maker of nothing note worthy, save for episodes of Kavanagh QC and A Touch of Frost), and written by Nigel Kneal (creator of the acclaimed Quatermass series) – is an old school, smoke and mirrors ghost story, similar in style to classics such as The Haunting, House on Haunted Hill, The Queen of Spades, Cat People, The Changeling, The Innocents and Rosemary’s Baby (sigh). With an absence of special effects, the film abandons wam bam editing (a scary token of today’s horror films) in exchange for a slow-burning menace that pervades the whole feature. When Arthur first encounters the woman in black, at the funeral of the elderly widow, she begins as a ‘presence’ signified by a ringing in the film’s score. Arthur feels the back of his head, sensing something is there, then as he turns around he sees The Woman in Black standing there, just staring at him. She continues to show up, often in the distance, sometimes while Arthur is on the ground of the property, and once floating above his bed whilst he is trying to sleep. As the frequency of her appearances increase, so to does the nastiness of the evil that follows, culminating in the films climatic and shocking end. (The flashes of The Woman in Black’s appearances were recounted to me on and oft whilst I was growing up. Mum had seen the telly-movie on its initial release and, like many others, she hadn’t been so quick to forget it. ‘I think the film was called The Woman in Black, or The Lady in Black, or something, and there was a scene where this guy was on a boat and this mysterious woman in black was suddenly in the boat with him, and it was so sudden that I just started screaming, and then there was another scene, where the main guy was in bed, and suddenly the woman was above him, screaming’)

The most interesting part of the story, and an element which sets it apart from most horror, is that the woman is neither a ghost, nor a person, but a freaky pseudo evil combination of both. The locals can all see the woman, their reluctance to help Arthur stems from experiences they have had with her before, which implies that her presence is physical and strong. Yet she floats above Arthur’s bed, and moves between locations, eventually following Arthur to his home town. It is thogh she transcends everything else, with the pervasiveness of her evil overriding any label.

Apart from the few that remember the film, as mentioned before, the picture was largely forgotten after its initial run. It is never screened on television, it is yet to be released on dvd, and any vhs copies have long been deleted.

Which begs the question, how did I see it? Well some kind soul uploaded it the whole film onto you tube, in eleven or so parts. If you have a lot of time on your hands, I would strongly recommend watching it (although the thrills of the picture is lost this way).

Following on the current wave of 3D motion pictures, The Woman in Black remake is apparently using this new technology for its 2011 release. Considering both the popularity of 3D, and the success of Watkin’s home grown feature Eden Lake, its hard not to guarantee that the film will deliver a few scares and put some bums on seats. Whether the picture retains Watkin’s gritty vision, and is actually any good, remains to be seen.



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