What scares you? Oh, come on, we all have our fears, right? (Don't lie!) Well, OK, so I have more fears than most. I hate thunderstorms, loud sudden noises in general (whether it be those exceedingly loud trailers for digital sound systems, or people coming into your room all of a sudden and talking to you without first politely knocking), and I have a deep, deep fear of things such as death, people wearing weird masks, and yes, children. By and large, I hate the little buggers, they creep me out and I could trust the majority of them about as far as I could throw them. Guess who's going to be an uncle soon?
Anyhow, onto this 60s adaptation of 'Turn of the Screw', which may be one of the most atmospheric horror films of the period, and indeed features some truly revolting little children. Set in the mid 19th Century, Deborah Kerr stars as a Governess is put in charge of delinquents Martin Stephens (an extraordinary young actor who was interestingly enough, one of the evil little tykes in 'Village of the Damned') and Pamela Franklin, with their estranged bachelor uncle Michael Redgrave apparently having no time for children. She is asked by Redgrave never to bother him again nor ask about the children's parents. Just as things appear to be settling down at the family's rich estate, they get very, very weird, as Kerr begins to see things, spectres that may or may not be the result of an overactive imagination. Adding to the conspiratorial feeling is the presence of Megs Jenkins as the family housekeeper, who seems outwardly pleasant, but you never quite feel that you can fully trust her. But can you trust anyone here? Certainly not the children it seems, they appear to delight in messing with Kerr's head. But all is not as it seems.
The film becomes almost unbearably tense the longer it goes on, and you are constantly changing your mind as to what is going on and who can be trusted. In that way, it's a bit reminiscent of Polanski's masterpiece 'Repulsion' (there's quite a bit of sexual repression in both, with one or two rather 'odd' moments involving Kerr and Stephens which won't trouble you too much afterwards but might surprise you a bit) but a better companion piece would be the Hammer film 'The Nanny' where Bette Davis played a sweet-natured nanny to two thoroughly revolting children who may be driving her mad. It's not as grand a film, though, this one is far better-looking (that is, if you like British horror from the 50s and 60s as I do), far more atmospheric, and one of the more interesting films in Deborah Kerr's excellent career.
Clearly inspiring the creepy but slightly overrated 'The Others' (I won't call it a rip-off, it was better than such a thing), this film gets a major boost from the superlative black and white cinematography by veteran Hammer director and sometimes cameraman Freddie Francis. He wonderfully captures the stunningly beautiful countryside scenery, but is even more effective in the more tense sequences. Most brilliantly, the film manages to suggest a lot whilst showing very little. This is not a special FX extravaganza, but the dream/nightmare sequences are extremely effective, and making sure that we don't see much means that we're still guessing as to what the hell is going on.
An absolute must for fans of understated horror and ghost stories, but slasher and gore fans might not even consider it horror at all. Tense from start to finish, and stunning to look at. If you enjoyed 'The Others', you'll hopefully enjoy this even more.