Widely considered as one of the better films about a ghost story, from the William James’s novel, Turn of the Screw, this Deborah Kerr version touches all the tombstones, so to speak. Not only can we expect to have the house as a character, but also the pond, some woods, some birds, even a good smattering of statues. The two children that Kerr’s governess character Ms. Giddens is charged with, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), seemingly participate in her haunting, inverting the concept of innocence.
The spooky stuff sneaks out at her, in sounds, silences, and sights, shadows, reflections, superimpositions, surreal dream sequences. “Pretend it was part of a dream, which it probably was” the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) tells Miss Giddens, which is not exactly comforting.
Miles is one bizarre kid, unpredictable, macabre, and more than a little precocious (both he and Flora call Miss Giddens “dear”). He gives an extremely creepy soliloquy as part of an act he and Flora put on. The former governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover, Quint (Peter Wyngarde), a gardner, have died on the premises, but apparently, at least from Miss Giddens’ perspective, they haven’t yet left. He had a fatal accident–or was he murdered? And she killed herself. They’d had a pretty reckless romance.
It seems that the dead couple’s spirits have possessed the children. The question arises, however, whether they are intentionally trying to influence Miss Giddens, or whether she’s hallucinating the whole deal. If that’s the case, how much is her imagination, or, rather, which parts are real? Even some of the ‘real’ stuff–when Mrs. Grose’s reflection appears in a window as she approaches Miss Giddens from behind–is distorted and hallucinatory. The music box tune seems to be everywhere and nowhere. Plus birds are suddenly flocking together, voices here and there, and sometimes, total silence.
Apparently, Miles has seen a hand poking up from the pond. “There are two of those…abominations” Miss Giddens tells Mrs. Grose. By this point, Giddens figures “something secretive, and whispery” is going on between the ghosts and the kids. Finally, Mrs. Grose lets on that she gets it. She describes the dead couple’s love as a “sickness…a savage love.” In front of the kids, no less. But Quint had been a sort of mentor to Miles.
Mrs. Grose describes Jessel’s and Quint’s relationship to the kids as “using” them. Giddens is soon into a montage of nightmares featuring exaggerated replays of all the spooky stuff. She’s determined to enlist the support of the Vicar “We have no part in their real life” she says. Then she realizes that Flora’s been leaving flowers at Ms. Jessel’s grave. Now a full manifestation of Jessel’s ghost in the schoolroom, leaving behind a drop of blood, no less.
Giddens was going to see the kids’ uncle, but now she figures she can’t leave the kids. Mrs. Grose agrees that they have to “drive the devils out” of the them. That night Giddens. is getting all sorts of poltergeist happenings. At this point, we’re in a complete twilight zone. Miles is still twisting her up, sneaking a dead pigeon under his pillow; then having her give him a real kiss on the lips.
Meanwhile, Flora’s out in the gazebo by the pond, dancing in exactly the same pose as the music box figures. Naturally (unnaturally?) Jessel shows up in her usual haunt, among the reeds. We see the ghostly figure, from Giddens point of view, but neither Flora nor Mrs. Grose does. Back at the house, Flora can’t stop screaming. Mrs. Grose and Miss Giddens go back and forth about what’s what: “to wake a child out of a bad dream, is that a cruelty?” Miss Giddens is not referring to a dream per se, but the entirety of the haunting. Mrs. Grose would rather ignore all that, as she plainly doesn’t want to deal with it.
Giddens’ plan is to be left alone in the house with Miles; he seems about ready to spill the (spirit) beans. He comes in to tea. “I feel quite the master of the house” he says. I never thought gelatin could look disturbing, but it jiggles strangely. He talks to her like she’s a out-of-favor girlfriend, she a “hussy.” She hears something sneaking up on them.
He admits he scared the kids at school, which was why he was kicked out. Quint appears in the window, then again among the statues. Confronting the ghost, Miles calls him “you devil!” but then collapses, apparently dead. Nevertheless, she kisses him on the mouth again. The last thing we see is a hand upraised, presumably Jessel’s. That’s all.
Truly spectacular from beginning to end. Great pacing, and superb setting, atmosphere and tone. All the performances are just right. The ending is abrupt, but it works. I think there’s a deliberate intention to leave loose ends. It’s established that Miles was sort of the conduit to the ghosts, so he was, in effect, sacrificed, or used up, by casting out the spirit of Quint. As for Miss Jessel, presumably, her spirit is still in business.
The Quint/Miss Jessel relationship is only just sketched in. That’s ok, except that means there’s a surreptitious relationship behind a ghost story. That’s a bit confusing. But this isn’t a crime mystery that seeks to explain everything. In fact, the plot within a plot builds more interest–we’re not just going to get the chills, we’re also given a psychological puzzle to think about.
And that also bleeds into the lives of the living. Miles has become a surrogate for Quint, who, having dealt with Miss Jessel, now focuses on Miss Giddens. The generational difference in Miles’ and Miss Giddens’ ages makes Miles (Quint’s spirit) relationship with her not only otherworldly, but more than a little inappropriate. The kisses she gives Miles are daring stuff for 1961.
Her behavior perhaps suggests that she is the surrogate for Miss Jessel, not Flora. The obvious connection is that both women were governesses who’ve worked with these kids. Flora seems much less affected by the spirits than Miss Giddens. Like Mrs. Grose, she accepts them, not wanting or willing to rock the boat. It does seems that Miss Giddens will have a heck of a time explaining Miles’ death. ‘A ghost killed him’ isn’t usually going to satisfy the authorities. But, given the possibility that Miss Giddens might be delusional, maybe she just imagines what happens to Miles. Therefore, she has nothing to explain.
An excellent movie, highly recommended for haunted house fans. And, a lot to like for Farmermouse here: the pond, the rowboats, the turtle, butterflies, roses, and birds, especially the swans. He gives this ten tea parties. 10/10