Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” is perhaps the greatest novel of the supernatural in the English language. Or maybe it isn’t. And that’s what makes it a great piece of literature.
In the “Turn of the Screw” a young, inexperienced governess is hired by a dissolute English nobleman to care for his orphaned niece and nephew. When she arrives at his country estate and meets the children she comes to realize that the previous governess and the handyman were carrying on a scandalous sexual liaison. Both died under tragic circumstances and it appears the children had been directly affected by the whole affair. The governess begins to see shadowy figures haunting the estate, reacts hysterically, and the story escalates to a tragic end.
The power of “The Turn of the Screw” is that it is never really clear whether the governess is actually seeing the ghosts of the doomed pair or whether she is suffering from some form of sexual hysteria. Thus, it is either a great supernatural tale or it is a great tale of psychological horror. I think it is both and is indisputably the greatest novel of horror ever written. (OK, well, the greatest one I have read)
The most notable film adaptation of James’ masterpiece is The Innocents (1961), masterfully directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr as the governess. The film was beautifully photographed by Freddie Francis and uses shadows, camera effects, and suggestion to create an atmosphere of dread and horror. Kerr is especially good, as are the two young actors playing the niece and nephew.
The one flaw of the movie is that, unlike the source material, it comes down firmly on one side of the ghosts/no ghosts proposition. It doesn’t spoil the film, but it does waste the primary power of the novel.
One of the interesting facts I ran across during research for this post is that the actress who plays the niece Flora with such creepy assurance went on to star in several notable horror movies. A few years after The Innocents, she appeared in the excellent The Nanny (1965), starring Betty Davis. And she had one of the leading roles as an adult in the well made Haunting of Hell House (1972). In Hell House, she had a memorable scene where she invites a ghost into her bed and allows him to make love to her, awaking to find a rotting corpse on top of her (implied, not shown). She also starred in lesser efforts like Food of the Gods (1976) and Satan’s School for Girls (1973).
Despite it’s Freudian leanings, The Innocents remains one of best ghost story movies ever filmed.Tags: The Innocents, The Turn of the Screw