Henry James’s 1898 novella Turn of the Screw is vividly adapted for the screen in Jack Clayton’s unnerving, gothic psychological chiller—among the eleven scariest horror films of all time according to Martin Scorsese.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2023
Prim and proper Miss Giddens (a knockout performance from Deborah Kerr), a parson’s daughter, is enlisted to take charge of two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, by their uncle. It’s most unfortunate he’s been saddled with the children’s care, which gravely impacts on his bachelor lifestyle in London and abroad. Unfazed by such blunt honesty, Miss Giddens soon sets off to the remote country estate, where little Flora is being raised, while Miles is at boarding school. It’s thoroughly enchanting, from the gardens and pond, alive with chirping birds, to the vast, turreted mansion and the homely housekeeper Mrs Grose. And Flora is a delightful, dizzying child.
It’s therefore disconcerting when Miles is expelled from school due to his bad influence on the other boys. Surely the school authorities are mistaken, for young Miles is charming, if eerily mature. However, the siblings’ complicity and peculiar behaviour begins to disturb their governess, increasingly unsettled by strange whisperings and sightings of a man and a woman, whose description fits the former governess Miss Jessel and gardener Peter Quint—both dead. Obsessed with what the children may have witnessed of this couple, and the power the latter may have exerted, Miss Giddens is determined to dig out the truth. But perhaps it is she who is the one possessed…
Shot in deep focus black and white, enhancing the intense contrasts of minimal lighting, actual candlelight and dark shadows, never has CinemaScope been so claustrophobic. The mansion, with its creaking staircases and nooks and crannies, becomes another character in its own right, and ups the ante in creepiness. Technical prowess is employed to marvellous effect, but the film’s disturbing force lies as much in the mysteries it leaves unresolved. — Sandra Reid
“Oozing ambiguity, Jack Clayton’s shimmering gem is a masterclass in suggestion, a flawless evocation of the uncanny which pits the subconscious against the supernatural to genuinely hair-raising effect.” — Mark Kermode, Observer