Well, Chrimbleplops is very nearly upon us, and another yearly tradition in the Lea household begins: the ceremonial watching of old psycho-thrillers with mad old ladies in them.
This all leads eventually to a viewing of AUNTIE ROO after festive dinner, something which my poor unfortunate companions, whoever they be that year, have to put up with. I can’t quite remember when this grand old custom began (although I imagine it was sometime in the mid 80s) but I can’t imagine a Yuletide season without it. And so we begin with THE NANNY, one of Hammer’s several contributions to the subgenre and probably their best attempt at a Hitchcockian thriller since the original TASTE OF FEAR (1961).
Of course, this isn’t just a Hammer, or even just a horror film- it’s a Bette Davis film. No-one played psychopathic matriarchs with quite the same mixture of panache and venom as our Bette, ’twas it would seem her natural calling in life. Both BABY JANE and SWEET CHARLOTTE had helped to cement this reputation: naturally the Carreras brothers seized upon it the way a starving man would seize a loaf of bread, and netted themselves a minor classic into the bargain, repeating the trick two years later with the non-horror but still decidedly sinister THE ANNIVERSARY. One could suggest that these films led to Davis being typecast, but in all honesty the roles were never a million miles away from her off-screen persona anyway, and she was the best at them.
Davis, referred to simply as ‘Nanny’ throughout, is in the employ of a typically starchy 1960s white middle class London family- an austere and moustachioed James Villiers, a pill-addicted, emotionally and physically weak wife in the shape of Wendy Craig, and a sullen, troubled 10-year old William Dix. There’s also Auntie Pen (Jill Bennett) Craig’s ineffectual sister with a dodgy heart condition, a rather fetching bobcut and a propensity for Swinging Sixties liberalism- but she lives far away and is only called upon when the family need her help. That age old credo of British filmmaking again – when in doubt, exploit the ill and the infirm.
It’s between Dix and Davis that most of the tension in the film escalates, creating moments of incredible suspense. Recently returned from some form of corrective school, where even on his last day he plays cruel jokes ala the later HAROLD AND MAUDE, the boy is distrustful, not to say hateful, of his Nanny. In fact, he doesn’t seem to get on with his father (a typically distant political diplomat type, always halfway across the world on some errand or other) or his mother either. In short, he’s a bit of a troubled young chap.
His two enjoyments in life seem to be primarily listening to loud mod jazz 45′s (great taste the pre-teens had back then!) on his Dansette, and talking to Bobbie (Pamela Franklin in her second great horror role) the slightly rebellious and precocious teenage daughter of the doctor upstairs, who doesn’t seem to mind hanging out with a younger boy- presumably as she has no little brother.
I can’t say I blame him- she’s possibly the only positive and strong individual in the entire film, seemingly without any neuroses, hang-ups or detachments. Oh, and she’s gorgeous. Am I allowed to say this in 2008 about a 14-year old character played by a 15-year old actress? You bet I am. Aside from anything else, it was obvious that Hammer, and Holt in particular, were keen to market her in this way at the time- and she wasn’t the only one in that predicament.
During one of the conversations held between Franklin and Dix in their bedrooms (separated only by a staircase and an insecure window- oh, those were the days), we find out the boy (named Joey, a name that would become distinctly unfashionable in the 1970s and early 80s for various, ahem, reasons) has reasonable grounds for distrusting Davis. She killed his baby sister. Or she may have. We’re never too sure, until we’ve seen the ending- and even then there’s a certain air of unexplained ambiguity. Not that I would explain too much anyway.
But in psychological chillers, questions equal spooky flashbacks, not to mention the ability to insert many slow-burning sequences involving characters walking toward shower curtains, running water, and a doll. Yep, five years on not only from TASTE OF FEAR but PSYCHO itself, and they’re still making wid da Hitch stuff. The slight variation this time is that it’s a bath, and in all honesty, damned creepy it is too, but basically you know the drill.
Villiers buggers off quite early on in the proceedings, and Craig constantly drops in and out of hospital, leaving most of the action to a quartet of Davis, Dix, Franklin and Bennett. Needless to say, one of these people isn’t going to see out the full 92 minutes, but as for which one…let’s just be sure that it is a particularly gruesome and unpleasant demise. Other than the dark doings with the doll (not to be confused with ‘dark doll doings’ which seem to be big with the kids in Japan but baffle the hell out of me), my personal favourite scene occurs during a long flashback narrated by Davis, involving a trip to a less seemly part of town (possibly one of the then soon-to-be demolished slum districts in nearby High Wycombe? I’d love to know) which reveals a little of her back story, who she actually is, and how she came to be how she is.
Incongruous, almost to the point where it seems like a half-remembered, misremembered part of another film that has somehow conjoined, the feeling of stifling poverty and malaise throughout this one small sequence echoes earlier British social problem films such as WOMEN OF TWILIGHT (1952) of which I have written elsewhere, but also harks back to the melodramas written in the first half of the 20th century about Victorian London (in particular those about Jack The Ripper), and presages in some ways the grimy urban Brit horror that would follow from 1967 onwards.
In a shabby, dirty, cold room atop an equally dirty staircase, we are introduced to someone close in more ways than one to Davis- shortly after they have died. Killer or not, the human empathy felt here is an unusual touch of social realism for Hammer, even more so than their child-abuse drama NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER (1960) where the setting was still changed from Bucks/Middlesex to Canada to try and convince the audience that it “couldn’t happen here”.
Sadly the rest of the film pales by comparison to it, leaving one almost convinced that it was directed by somebody else. Not that the late Holt was by any means a bad director- his earlier work such as NOWHERE TO GO and the aforementioned TASTE OF FEAR is more than competent, and his editing of Ealing classics such as MANDY and THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT, as well as Karel Reisz’ social realist classic SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, is a major part of what made them great. And it’s not like THE NANNY is some kind of screwball comedy save for this one scene. But for some reason, possibly due to it coming very late in the proceedings, the inherent gravitas jars with the other 88 minutes, almost as if they were a dry run for something of more import rather than yer standard Sangster pot-boiler. For once, our Jim almost reigns himself in- there’s not an underwater car, a skeleton in a chair, a squawking bird or a French chateau to be seen anywhere!! To be commended.
THE NANNY is a bit of an oddity, even amongst the rest of the studio’s Hitchcock/Clouzot output: most of the horror is implied rather than supplied (not that that’s a bad thing- it did Jacques Tourneur proud until the producers got their hands on him) and most of the suspense, save for one or two visual sections, is actually executed through conversation rather than action. Furthermore, whilst it may have a central (juvenile) male protagonist, who in turn has a close female ally, it has absolutely no hero or heroine. Rather, it relies on the simultaneous subtlety and immenseness of Bette Davis’ performance (OK, and Pamela Franklin’s legs) to carry the viewer through.
Hate her or not (and you do, which shows just what a bloody good actress she was) your eyes are never off her anytime she’s onscreen, wondering exactly what she will do, who she will do it to, if she will do it, and whether or not she ever actually did it. A seething mass of falcon-like stare, suggested malevolence and implicit spite, topped off with that wonderful crack in the voice that was her trademark, she may have been an expensive and irksome folly for Hammer, but was probably the best several noughts they had spent in a decade.
Released November 1965, the film itself (the third psychodrama Hammer had turned out in 11 months) was only a modest success, meaning that they wouldn’t produce another in the style until CRESCENDO (1969), but time has been kind to it. Its lack of FX, blood, cheesy incidental music or any of the usual accoutrements of the studio’s concurrent output means that it has actually acquired an almost solemn respectability as the years have passed- this, coupled with the timeless beauty of Harry Waxman’s camerawork, have gained it several repeated showings on TV, although sadly not so many in recent times. Of course, we can buy the DVD easily- but sometimes, don’t you want to see your old faves on the gogglebox, just to let you know you’re not alone and that there’s still a place in the world for this stuff? And if there is, surely it’s here and now in pre-seasonal Britain, as the skies turn to grey and a strange foreboding fills the air? Or is my extractor fan malfunctioning again?
Required winter viewing I think- and remember, once we’ve done with Nanny, the Aunties are coming over.