For today’s film I’ll be going back quite a bit to the early 1960s and also to the Victorian era. I mentioned in my entry for The Others that there was another film that had a few parallels to it and this indeed that film. They are both based on Henry James’s novella “The Turn of the Screw” but The Others was really just borrowing some themes and ideas from it while this is an actual adaptation. The two of them do make a perfect pair of companion pieces anyway and some of the better haunted house films out there. For those who don’t know the phrase “turn of the screw” refers to telling a story or something like that, so I guess I’ll go ahead and turn away...
Miss Giddens is a governess in Victorian times and she is applying for her first position. A wealthy bachelor has been saddled with two children – he is their uncle and he doesn’t want to have to deal with them so he hires other people to be in charge at his country household Bly. The girl Flora is being cared for there while the boy Miles is away at boarding school. Miss Giddens accepts the job and goes to stay at the house. She is enchanted by it straight away and gets along wonderfully with young Flora. Rather abruptly Miles comes home, having been expelled from school. Miss Giddens is shocked at this because Miles appears to be as enchanting as his sister and she gets on well with the two of them. However she soon starts to see strange things in the house – other people from a distance. When she sees a man staring at her through the window, she recognises him from a picture in the attic but the housekeeper informs her that the man is dead. Nonetheless Miss Giddens continues to see the man and another ghost – the governess who worked there before her. Eventually Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the two spirits are trying to possess the children. She tries to unravel the details and is determined to save the children, sometimes going a little too far.
One of the main points of the film is that a lot of what is happening is left up to the audience’s opinion. It’s never said whether or not the ghosts are real or Miss Giddens is just imagining them. She is said to have a vivid imagination and she herself is used to living in cramped conditions with loads of other people, so it is possible she imagines a story for herself to be a part of. Notice she doesn’t actually see Peter Quint’s ghost up close until after she’s seen his picture and she doesn’t see Miss Jessel at the lake until she hears a rumour of someone being found there. She does seem to make up a lot of the facts on her own, from what Mrs Grose tells her about their past lives. There is of course another explanation that the children know about what Miss Giddens thinks and are deliberately playing a trick on her to convince her that the house is haunted. If I’m being honest, I’m inclined to think the ghosts are real because it’s more fun that way. One scene that stands out is where Miss Giddens first sees Miss Jessel on the lake and says to Flora “who is she?” and the look Flora gives her. To me that look says “you can see her too?” and of course this happens before we find out that Miss Jessel actually drowned herself in the lake. There’s also the strange subtext between Miles and Miss Giddens. Miles is definitely too young to be experiencing puberty so all those romantic undertones suggest an older man trying to charm Miss Giddens.
The film has a very impressive visual design, which was done on purpose to make it separate from the stream of Hammer horror films that were being churned out at the time. It’s shot in stunning black and white cinematography which really adds to the ghostly element of the story, with similar touches to David Lean’s “Great Expectations” and Robert Stevenson’s “Jane Eyre” with a lot of bleak and ominous shots, making great use of fog.
This also contrasts with the earlier shots showing how pretty and pleasant the house and the gardens are. There’s also a lot of deep focus in most of the scenes, using depth of field and a few optical tricks to add to the supernatural overtone. The lighting for the film gets steadily darker and grimmer as the story unfolds, signalling how Miss Giddens is going slightly insane. The film has a pretty unique opening that the projectionists in cinemas thought was an editing goof. We have about forty-five second of a black screen with Flora singing “Willow Waly” ominously before the opening credits appear. To me it works and the song is especially creepy when sung by little Flora.
Deborah Kerr plays the leading role of Miss Giddens and it’s certainly one of her finest performances. Not to take anything away from The King & I, From Here To Eternity or The Chalk Garden but this will always be her best film to me. She has such a great presence on the screen that she is able to become this character and make us forget that this is Deborah. We feel that this is Miss Giddens and we want so much to believe that she isn’t going insane and that she is doing the right thing, even if the film keeps giving us suggestions that she isn’t. Deborah is almost alarming to watch as Miss Giddens goes slowly madder and more desperate towards the end of the film and you start to wonder whether or not she’s more dangerous for the children than the alleged ghosts are.
The two child actors are Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as Miles and Flora respectively. Martin Stephens is the stronger of the two because he is able to give us that hint of an older man inside the young boy trying to attract a much older woman, with how he always calls her “my dear” and tells her how pretty she is. His performance in the final scene is nothing short of extraordinary for a child that age. Pamela Franklin is also pretty good as Flora, and this was her first film too. She gives us a lovely sort of “bitch in sheep’s clothing” type of character as we see Flora charming and inviting at first and then we soon see a more disturbed side to her. Whenever she says “I don’t think I remember” to a question she doesn’t like she does it so creepily. There is a scene where she screams at Miss Giddens and she’s not as good as the other child but it’s not Jake Lloyd awful. We also have a cameo from Michael Redgrave playing the uncle in the first five minutes of the film.
Personally one of my favourite scenes comes about halfway through when Miss Giddens is having a nightmare. We see so many shots faded on top of each other, of Miles and Quint walking together, a dead pigeon, Miles whispering to Flora, a music box and Miss Jessel dancing with Flora. It’s certainly a creative way to imagine a nightmare scene. I really like the part where Flora disappears and they find her at the lake dancing along to the music box. Miss Jessel is watching her from across the lake and Miss Giddens desperately tries to get Flora to admit she’s there. It’s a pretty powerful performance from Deborah Kerr as we see the governess on the brink of madness herself. There’s also a really creepy scene where Miles and Flora get dressed up to do a performance for the servants and Miles recites a poem about calling a lost lord from the grave and inviting him into the house. It certainly gives me a few chills.
Well that’s another day and another film down and I’m a little sad because that will be the second-last horror film on my list. I’ll leave it up to the rest of you to guess what the next one will be but I don’t think any of you are going to get it (it is most certainly NOT The Shining). I hear it didn’t sell as many tickets when it came out but it has thankfully gained a cult following over time and was critically acclaimed back in the day. Martin Scorcese himself ranked it as one of his top 11 scariest films of all time. It got two BAFTA nominations and made it onto the Time Out list for 100 greatest British films. What number was it? Why, the same as it is on my list. I only just found that out so isn’t it a nice coincidence. Okay well that’s all I’ve got time for so I’ll stop turning this screw with a note that you should of course follow me on Twitter.