I titled this review with one of the most overly used clichés I could think of, with a wink and a nod, but recognizing that it fits this movie as closely as you can get. Indeed, this film comes from a bygone era. The product of a short story (which no one writes anymore) written in a style that has long since gone out out of vogue and made into the sort of Gothic ghost movie that Hollywood never attempts to make anymore. Many critics and scary movie lists will tell you that this is one of the classics of the genre and they are not wrong, but I am, also, willing to acknowledge right off the bat that the average 18- year old will despise this movie. This is a "film lovers" movie and is never going to be the sort of thing that appeals to a mass audience anymore. Indeed, it didn't appeal to a mass audience at the time. At the turn of the 20th Century, the public was becoming more literate and had more time on their hands, creating a wave of magazines that specialized in short fiction. Some of the most popular of these magazines were selling horror fiction. Mind you this is a century ago and what we think of as horror was not yet developed. Most of these stories were Gothic "pot boilers" influenced heavily by Poe and Hawthorne, that were more about mood, suspense and atmosphere than any real spooks. Quite possibly, the creme de la creme of this min-genre was THE TURN OF THE SCREW, which this movie is based upon. It became the benchmark for this sort of fiction. By the time this movie was made, in the 60s, that genre was out of style. When the monster movie died in the 40s, Val Lewton brought on a new focus on these sort of films, culminating in gems like THE UNINVITED and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. By the 60s, though, we had Hammer Studios, Maria Bava and PSYCHO, all revolutionizing the horror genre. Even by then this sort of shadowy, psychological ghost film was a risk, but one that resulted in what just might be the pinnacle in this style. While many critics will point to THE HAUNTING, for me, this is the best of the Gothic ghost movies. DO NOT expect rattling chains, ghostly apparitions and things that go bump in the night. This is not that kind of ghost story. In fact, the sum total of "ghostly scenes" is probably a handful at most. Rather, this is the kind of ambiguous ghost story that Hollywood almost intentionally killed off in the 70s. Richard Matheson, in particular, rallied against it when he created HELL HOUSE, but I am digressing in my history lessons here. What I mean by ambiguous is that the viewer is left to wonder many things at the end. Where there actually ghosts? Is our heroine just mad? There are so many things that work so well in this movie, that help it create that perfect tone. The direction and camera-work are spot on. The viewer sees many things from our heroine's perspective, aiding in the illusion that we are seeing things as she does, but left to wonder if anyone else sees them. The magnificent use of wide angle shots often creates a sensation of loneliness and isolation, putting characters on far opposite ends of the frame. The astute viewer will take notice of the use of light and shadow. The movie begins on a brilliantly lit summer day, but as the movie progresses we see less and less sun and more of the shadows. When we do get our glimpses of "ghosts" they are unsettling and tense. These aren't Scooby Doo goblins, but stark imagery that sticks wit the viewer. Of course, the best part of this movie might just be the acting of the two children, who are excellent in their roles. Our governess is convinced that they've become possessed by their former caretaker and her lover, destroying their innocence and corrupting them. The roles demanded an acting grace that is uncommon in children this young. The young boy may just be calculatingly evil or may just be an ordinary naughty boy, while his sister shows off both playful and carefree, then switching to a girl haunted by things out of her understanding, starting into space. So many scenes can be seen in dual ways with these children. Are they ordinary children, acting out in ordinary child- like ways, or are they corrupted and possessed and whispering secrets? The rock in all of it is Deborah Kerr as our main character. She seems to age before our eyes as the madness and terror overwhelm her. From scene to scene, or even, shot to shot, she can switch from a caring, loving woman to a frightened madwoman, surrounded by forces beyond her control. This movie revolves around her in so many ways and could have been a boring disaster in lesser acting hands, but Kerr is superb, pulling empathetically on the viewer's strings, drawing us into liking her and caring for her, which becomes so vital as we need to see things from her eyes to see the madness unfold. You probably know if you are the right person for this movie. That's lazy reviewing, but that's the truth. If you can appreciate an older style of film and a movie that focuses far more on its' acting and directing styles than any plot-driven action, than you will appreciate this movie. It is "old-fashioned" and was old- fashioned at the time, but that does not mean that there isn't a lot to love about this movie.
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A young governess for two children becomes convinced that the house and grounds are haunted.
March 21, 2020