Now I know what everybody is thinking at this point, because I thought it too. I reacted with something along the lines of, “Not another stupid old haunted house movie” and “Wow, I bet it will be really surprising when the children turn out to be satanic. I wonder if they killed the previous governess. Duh!” To be honest, I’m not familiar with Henry James’s work but I figured that I would be jadedly familiar with any gothic horror story that heralded from before the 1900’s and I quickly set about polishing my scoffing monocle. How wrong I was.
In truth, the plot is not really worlds away from your typical haunted-house/satanic-child setup, but in execution, James, Capote and Clayton have fashioned some brilliant variations. The film combines high-pitch psychological realism, controversial Freudian implications and an unreliable narrator into a fusion of terror, humanity and ambiguity that works better than dozens of lesser attempts.
The lack of any comic relief, distracting subplots or narrative omniscience keeps us trapped in the upward spiral of both fear and doubt. Freddie Francis pins us to the tight network of characters with invasive camera positions and uncomfortably deep focus shots (sometimes even resorting to “Citizen Kane” (1941) style matting and optical printer tricks). The crisp black and white, with strange contrasts from foreground to background, conjures a lingering sense of evil compulsions as often in bright daylight as at dusk. Long before there is any evidence of wrongdoing, and one would be hard put even to produce the evidence, something feels wrong at the manor.