Thursday, March 3, 2016

THE NANNY (1965)

Seth Holt, 1965
Starring: Bette Davis, William Dix, Wendy Craig

Joey Fane has been in a special hospital since the death of his young sister — where it was suspected he had a hand — but he is eventually sent home to his nervous mother and his arch-nemesis, the family’s longtime nanny. He is convinced that Nanny is trying to kill him or sabotage him in someway, and he refuses to eat the food she cooks him and tries to refuse interacting with her, but his distraught parents just think he’s still suffering the same effects of temper that landed him in the hospital in the first place. Is Joey quite mad or is Nanny really a threat?

Following Hammer’s first foray into “hag horror” or “psycho biddy” films (I hate both of those terms) with Tallulah Bankhead in Fanatic aka Die! Die! My Darling!, the studio snagged an even bigger star — the divine Bette Davis — for this eerie tale of domestic oppression, grief, and terror. Based on a novel by Evelyn Piper, an alias for Merriam Modell who also wrote the source material for Otto Preminger’s underrated missing child mystery Bunny Lake is Missing, this exceeds the normal hysterical, campy bounds of similar films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte thanks to a subtle script that takes its time unfolding the central mystery.

It turns out that Joey’s sister drowned accidentally two years ago — because Nanny was out of the house for some unexplained reason (it's explained why later, but no spoilers here) when she should have been watching the children — and finding the little girl dead seemed to have unhinged Nanny, who blamed the whole thing on Joey after failing to kill him too. The household dynamic is pleasantly strange, with Joey’s mother Virginia (Wendy Craig from The Servant) a complete mess after the loss of her daughter, though it’s clear that she has never really emotionally developed beyond childhood and requires Nanny — who took care of her as a girl — to feed, clothe, and emotionally support her.

Joey’s father (James Villiers of Repulsion) is essentially absent from the film, but is a bully in his few scenes. He tells his hysterical, crying wife in the film’s opening sequence that she looks terrible and she should “go and put some makeup on.” The only other major adult character, Virginia’s sister Penny (Jill Bennett from For Your Eyes Only), comes to believe Joey but only it is after too late for her to do anything about it: she has a weak heart and should not risk getting excited. Maurice Denham (an occasional Hammer regular) has a nice cameo as the stern psychologist, who is convinced he’s failed with Joey. He says, “Our job is to search out their little devils and exorcise them, but I’m afraid we’ve quite failed Joey, we’ve failed him miserably.”

The film actually makes quite a meal out of establishing that Joey is disturbed. It’s repeated that he hates middle aged women and is clearly troubled, and he’s even given a brilliant onscreen introduction where he pretends to hang himself, in a nastier version of the same scene from Harold and Maude (1971). While he’s often quite sweet to his mother — a woman who could clearly use a good slap from Peter Cushing — his favorite pastimes include making a hangman’s noose or imagining new ways that Nanny could possibly kill him. The young William Dix actually gives a decent performance as Joey — and I typically hate child actors — but the script has him flip-flopping around too much between cold rationality and childish whining.

it’s redundant to say that Bette Davis is great, but she is and, unlike Bankhead in Fanatic, doesn’t consciously steal every scene out from under the other actors. She’s a constant presence whose quiet demeanor leaves an increasingly grim cast over the film and — SPOILERS, I guess — it doesn’t become clear till quite late that Nanny is obviously as nefarious as Joey claims she is. The films makes the most of a central premise that the child may actually be the murderer, like the wonderful Alice Sweet Alice. With elements of class tension, economic strife, and social rebellion, there’s a pleasant whiff of the themes found in British New Wave films. As a result, it feels so different from Jimmy Sangster’s other suspense scripts for Hammer, but perhaps in a nice nod to those film, it does share some of their common themes: a central female character on the verge of hysteria, a drowning, and past trauma visiting itself upon the present. 

The Nanny definitely comes recommended, particularly for Bette Davis fans, and you can pick it up on DVD. Curiously, the only person who makes as much as an impression as Davis is the delightful Pamela Franklin (The Innocents), who plays a sympathetic, cigarette-smoking neighbor who is a few years older than Joey has a sort of British, teenage Anna Karina thing going on. I would love to see a film with her exploits. Director Seth Holt (Taste of Fear, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb) does some solid work here establishing tension and it’s a shame he didn’t do more films with Hammer. And if you love The Nanny, keep in mind that Davis would return to Hammer and hag horror with the equally delightful The Anniversary (1968) a few years later.

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