Jack Clayton's classic ghost film while reading, belatedly and for the first time, its source story, Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." While I've enjoyed the movie on its own terms over a lifetime, I found myself far more appreciate of it this time, and not entirely on the basis of what my reading brought to the experience; I think it had equally much to do with what I've learned of life, people and human psychology since my last viewing. In the story, James has his initial narrator frame the story with a description of the time it was first related to him, by someone who in turn framed it by saying that the woman protagonist of this story was in love with someone and the reader must decide with whom. Is it the wealthy uncle, played here in a single scene by Michael Redgrave? Is it the children, played by the uncanny newcomers Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, or the boy more in particular? Or might it be Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the ghost of a libertine groundskeeper who corrupted the children, and whose lustiness might be summoned by the unmet, plainly pining needs of the spinster governess played by Deborah Kerr? Who might yearn to take the place of Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), also dead, her literal predecessor?
The story doesn't answer the question but it is a fairly emphatic ghost story; the film, on the other hand, maintains Clayton's respectability as a highbrow mainstream filmmaker by remaining ambiguous -- not only about this question (which it doesn't even pose) but about whether the ghosts are real, or projections of her sexual hysteria, or if she's inventing the haunting as a device to force the return intervention of the children's remote uncle, who has, in effect, hired her to relieve him entirely of their responsibility. Kerr gives an extraordinary central performance, easily overlooked amid the atmosphere, the spare but jolting spatial shocks, and the astonishingly self-possessed performances of the children, who possess all the winning, seductive charm James described.
Quint's first appearance looks like a special effect but is pulled off with a simple lighting/dolly trick, strikingly similar to one of the sudden appearances by Javutich (Arturo Dominici) in Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY (LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO, 1960), made the year before. There's no telling if director of photography Freddie Francis had seen it, but his elegant solutions to creating atmospheres of terror and those little aforementioned jolts showed why, as a director in his own right, he had some good horror films of his own up his sleeve.
Viewed on DVD.