The Woman In Black is a film version of the 1983 ghost story by Susan Hill, written in the style of a traditional gothic novel. Set in late Victorian/early Edwardian times, it follows a young lawyer who travels to a remote rural village, where he discovers a vengeful ghost responsible for the deaths of local children.
The first version of the British made film was submitted for classification to the BBFC for an advice viewing in 2011, with a 12A category request. Then the finalised version of the film was submitted in early 2012, also with a 12A category request; this was seen by a group of BBFC Examiners, plus the BBFC Director.
The BBFC considered the film to be on the border between the 12A and 15 categories, because of the number of scenes of supernatural horror and threat in which the ghost of the 'woman in black', plus the ghosts of her victims, appear to and threaten the central character and others. Therefore several factors needed to be considered by the BBFC before a decision on the final category for the film could be made.
The BBFC considered that the theme of the film was a relatively known quantity: the best-selling book was adapted for the stage in 1987 and has played continuously in the West End of London, and was broadcast as a TV drama in 1989. The book also appears on the national curriculum, and schools therefore frequently take pupils to see the stage version. If the film had been rated 15, some might have argued it unfair for the BBFC to prevent 12 to 14 year olds experiencing an adaptation of such a well known story – especially as the film relies on atmosphere and a traditional ghost story format and 'frights', rather than on graphic or explicit imagery.
The BBFC also took into account how the period setting of the story provides a degree of separation between the film and contemporary reality, and is in the tradition of classic ghost stories such as those of M.R. James. This said, arguments in favour of a 15 classification included the fact that the general mood and tone of the film is quite bleak, and the premise of a ghost manipulating children into harming or killing themselves makes this a potentially disturbing feature for young children. Moreover, the BBFC was also aware that as Daniel Radcliffe was starring in The Woman In Black (one of his first major film roles since finishing the Harry Potter series), the film might attract a younger audience, that may not usually choose to watch a scary film.
The BBFC Guidelines at the time for 12A/12 stated that 'Moderate physical and psychological threat may be permitted, providing disturbing sequences are not frequent or sustained'. Although there is a degree of intensity to the scenes involving the ghosts, it slowly increases in the first 40 minutes and is then broken up at intervals by other scenes and stories, with a number of quieter periods in between the more frightening sequences. Suspense also builds about how the narrative will resolve, which in some ways resembles a detective story. There is strong contextual justification to the feature of child suicides within the film, in that these are clearly set within a supernatural storyline and an unrealistic setting. The characters are possessed by the ghost of ‘the woman in black’, and admit this when they revisit living characters as ghosts.
However, the film also includes some notably stronger scenes: in one, the ghost of the 'woman in black' appears to hang herself from a noose, and in another a young girl deliberately smashes an oil lamp and sets herself on fire.
After careful consideration, the BBFC decided that reductions to these particular scenes would be required in order to achieve the requested 12A classification, along with some other smaller changes throughout the film. A 15 rating with no cuts was available to the distributors, however they elected to cut The Woman In Black to achieve a 12A. In total they removed six seconds of stronger horror from the film. They also darkened certain shots and reduced some sound effects, to lessen the impact of some of the scarier ‘jump’ moments. With these changes the BBFC concluded that viewers aged 12 and above were likely to find the scary moments thrilling rather than upsetting or disturbing.
The theatrical version of The Woman In Black was passed 12A in January 2012, with the BBFCinsight 'Contains intense supernatural threat and horror'. Longer BBFCinsight, published on the BBFC website for all films, details the horror storyline and the strongest moments in the film.
A 12A classification means that the BBFC regards the film as suitable for persons aged 12-14, although parents may decide to take younger children at their own discretion. The BBFC recognises, and states clearly in the Guidelines, that viewers under 12 may find a 12A film too intense, and that parents should consult BBFCinsight before taking younger children to see a 12A film.
Following its release, the BBFC received 134 letters of complaint from cinema-goers, who felt the film was too dark and unsettling for 12A. As the BBFC routinely take the most challenging films to consultation (as happened with The Dark Knight), The Woman In Black was included in the public research that informed the development of the 2014 BBFC Guidelines. That research showed 89% of the public supported the 12A rating, with only 11% thinking it should have received a higher category.
The DVD version of the theatrical release (with the same changes made) was passed at 12 in February 2013, and was rapidly followed by the submission to the BBFC of the original, uncut version of the film, also for DVD release. This was passed at 15, with the accompanying BBFCinsight changed to read ‘Contains strong supernatural threat and horror’.
The film was screened as part of the BFI Gothic film festival in 2013 (August 2103 to January 2014), and included presentations to secondary school pupils by the BBFC Education team on the classification of the film.