This adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw sees Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) become the governess to two small children, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens,) who live in Bly House – a sprawling country pile – and are the wards of an absent uncle (Michael Redgrave) who lives in London.
Bly House has 100 rooms and a dark lake in which a young governess called Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) drowned herself for love of the valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), now dead as well. Their love was an unholy affair.
As Miss Giddens spots ghosts and becomes convinced of the kids’ malevolence, it’s the ambiguity of both the story and film that impress. Is Miss Giddens mad? Are there ghosts? Are both things true?
Faces and forms of dead people lurking in the shadows or peering through windows have rarely been used to more chilling effect.
Demonic children, ghostly visions, a music-box score, stuffed animals, lightning, squeaky floorboards, windows flung open by the wind, a scary attic – they sound like clichés now, but they were new at the time and this film was something of a template for Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.
Truman Capote took a break from writing In Cold Blood in order to rewrite the screenplay for this film. Harold Pinter and John Mortimer also worked on the screenplay.
Peter Wyngarde was second-billed for contractual requirements but does not have a single line of dialogue, and only appears in the film in a handful of short scenes that total less than one minute in total. Deborah Kerr, conversely, is on screen for 95 of the film’s 99 minutes of running time.