Turns of the Screws

Oct 11th, 2011 | By | Category: Columns, Prose

Happy Halloween, everyone! Okay, it’s not Halloween yet, but for me, every day in October is Halloween, which is why I’m dressed up as Eric Draven from The Crow. (Tomorrow I’m Barney.) What can I say, this is my favorite time of the year, and I often spend the month celebrating by partaking in spooky things like ghost tours, haunted trails, and long phone calls with my mother.

The best part of my Halloween ritual is watching scary movies. Sure, there’s Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw, or The Blind Side, however, I love when a film is both frightening and involves corsets (which is why I’m looking forward to The Awakening and The Woman in Black).

While there are many great period piece short stories and novels adapted to film/TV with a touch of the supernatural (The Lady’s Maid’s Bell by Edith Wharton, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins) The Turn of the Screw has been adapted more so than most. And boy, are there some stinkers. Let’s look at a few! (Wheeeeee!)

Background: The Turn of the Screw was published in 1898, and is about a governess and her frightening experiences with her two charges, Miles and Flora at Bly, a country estate outside of London. The novella is nebulous at best in regard to whether or not the governess is dealing with an evil, ghostly presence, or her own fleeting sanity. This is delicious fodder for lit critics, and gives a screenwriter the opportunity to explore the narrative discourse. Or, to just have an excuse to make Valerie Bertenelli’s skirts really really large:

The Bert in "The Haunting of Helen Walker"

That’s right. Valerie Touched By An Angelli. She starred in The Haunting of Helen Walker. This is probably the lesser known of The Turn of the Screw adaptations, and it is my favorite. Check this out:

Thank God for Depends, right?

The Haunting of Helen Walker, made in 1995 and broadcasted many a time on Lifetime, focused on one of Henry James’ themes of the sexual oppression of women in the Victorian age. In this version, the governess is a bit older, an American widow looking for a fresh start. Helen Walker longs for children, and Valerie Bertinelli plays the title role: a moralistic woman who likes to sneak into people’s bedrooms only to find Ye Olde Porn.

Aww yeah. That's the stuff.

(Kudos to whoever decided to make Helen Walker American and save Bertinelli from the embarrassment of taking on a British accent.)

Helen, like most of the governesses in The Turn of the Screw adaptations, is charmed into taking the position by Miles and Flora’s unnamed sexy-faced uncle, either played by Colin Firth (The Turn of the Screw, 1999), Mark Umbers (The Turn of the Screw, 2009), or Paul Rhys (Haunting of Helen Walker).


While Firth, Rhys and Redgrave (The Innocents) play the Master as a disinterested bachelor, who, by default is an attractive ladies’ man, Umbers decided to go all out and take his role into Sexual Harassment Territory:

(One of) the best(s) part of this film is that the role of governess is played by Michelle Dockery, a wonderful actress, but very miscast in a role that involves more quiet reflection and dutiful servitude. Her “Fuck Off” face is in full swing in this scene, and throughout the 2009 adaptation.

The Many Bitchfaces of Michelle Dockery

Also in this adaptation? Crows. Lots and lots of crows. To create creepy ambiance I suspect, or an inkling that Bly is in desperate need of some scarecrows. (I’ve been to England a few times, and I don’t remember a large crow population, perhaps I need to spend more time in drafty mansions and less time under overpasses.)

Speaking of awesome faces and strange, beady-eyed things, how about that Julian Sands?


This is the 1992 version, set in the 1960s with Julian Sands thinking it’s Pirate Week. His version of the Master (Mr. Cooper in this clip), is one of disaffected interest. With a leopard rug.

Also, the movie trailer for the 1992 version deserves so much love, if only for the end in which Peter Quint sounds like he farted, and he got really angry about it.

Awesome asides aside, the Master, named or unnamed, represents a freedom the governess cannot have, because of her class and gender. Not only does she yearn to bang him, she wants to have his autonomy. In all of these films, the governess is locked into a life of loneliness that she does not want, but must live with. This is a breeding ground for mental instability.

OR to see a dead groundskeeper (Peter Quint) roaming around the halls, trying to cop a feel. (And in the case of the 2009 version, for him to rape everything.)

The governess soon realizes that the last governess, Miss Jessel, drowned in a nearby lake. She and Peter Quint were lovers, and the present governess soon comes to believe that both Quint and Jessel are trying to possess the children so that they can be reborn and engage in creepy sibling hugs.

In the 2009 version, Quint gets his rape on with the female staff, and throws a few down the stairs for good measure. (By the way, this version is set in the 1920s, when ladies had a bit more female progressiveness than in the Victorian years. Peter Quint is a creation of the sexually repressed 19th century, not the age of jazz and bitchface.)

For the most part, The Turn of the Screw adaptations sit in the realm of ghost story (except for the Julian Sands version. I have no earthly idea where that sits. In the back of the classroom I guess, with a dunce-cap.) With Jodhi May in Turning of The Screw (1999), there’s no doubt that it is a psychological drama (a la The Yellow Wallpaper). The governess has completely gone off the deep end, whether from other issues that have threatened to break for years, or an unrequited obsession with the Master. The ghosts, it seems, are just a production of her mind. While Deborah Karr (The Innocents) deftly balances this question of insanity or an actual haunting, the director of the 1999 version told May to just go full shaking baby syndrome:

(This Peter Quint is not as frightening as Christopher Guard’s version or Peter Wyngarde’s. He’s more like a disgruntled handyman who is sick of you clogging your toilets with discarded iPhones.)

But whether or not your Peter Quint is Depends-scary, the conclusion of the novella, when the governess confronts Miles about the haunting in Bly, is truly the most disturbing part of any successful adaptation. Of course, The Innocents is pitch perfect in this last scene. While other versions are serviceable, none are more hilariously ridiculous than the 2009 version. Yes, it has lots of crows, and is set in the wrong era (described as a “bold re-imagining” by BBC Controller of Drama Commissioning Ben Stephenson, who is probably very scared of crows), but the classic narrative is framed by another story, that of Dr. Fischer (played by Dan Stevens, who would later join Dockery in the fabulous Downton Abbey and they probably laughed and laughed about this adaptation over drinks) who visits the governess (Dockery) in the mental asylum before she’s put to death for the unsolved murder of Miles.

Wait, what?

Oh and did I mention all the rape?


While I understand the recent changes of BBC to focus on period pieces that take place after the 19th century, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is deeply entrenched in the culture and mindset of the 19th century personality. Sure, it’s fine to take the skeletal themes and ideas of The Turn of the Screw, but then call it something completely different, like In a Dark Place, or The Haunting of Helen Walker, where you are free to take narrative liberties and drown Valerie Bertinelli in a sea of taffeta:

That dress is as wide as the fireplace. Lookin' good, Bert!

One thing that is never clear in any of these adaptations is this: who is Miss Jessel? She’s supposedly a woman who falls in love with this:


And ends up murdered or killing herself to become this:

What up?

The answer to who Miss Jessel was is never discovered. There are some very academic findings, however: She was beautiful (The Innocents). She was SUPER beautiful (The Haunting of Helen Walker). She was all about bangin’ Peter Quint (The Turn of the Screw, 1992, The Turn of the Screw, 2009). She was bi-sexual (In a Dark Place). One can only assume, then, that Miss Jessel acts as a foil to the new governess’s sexual and autonomous desires.

So, what’s my recommendation for the bestest, most scariest The Turn of the Screw adaptation? The Innocents. I hate to admit it (Valerie, I love you!!) but it’s a classic. (God, I’m boring.)


Okay, so some of you might be asking “I love a good ghost story, but I hate the past. What about a modern interpretation? Something with boobs and big cat eyes and a really awkward lesbian sex scene?”

How about Leelee Sobeski in In a Dark Place?

This is not a bathrobe. I don't care what the script says.

Um, nevermind.

And there you have it, a bunch of Turns of the Screws, available for your viewing pleasure. And let me add that I’ve never seen Presence of Mind and this makes me very, very sad. It’s set in Spain but with Harvey Keitel and Sadie Frost is dressed in velour:


I can only hope someday it will be bestowed upon me as a wedding present or I’ll find it in some bargain bin at CVS, right underneath Santa With Muscles starring Hulk Hogan.

Truly, the scariest film of them all.

To review!

The Innocents (1961)–Starring Deborah Kerr
The Turn of The Screw (1992)–Starring Julian Sands, doing his best Julian Sands impression. (Seriously, the movie trailer is amazing.)
The Haunting of Helen Walker (1995)–Starring the Bert and a lot of hoop skirt.
Presence of Mind (1999)–Starring Sadie Frost, ex-Mr. Frost and Harvey Keitel. In Spain.
The Turn of The Screw (1999)–Starring Jodhi May and Colin Firth (for five minutes).
In a Dark Place (2006)–Starring Leelee Sobieski, who has just given up, and Tara FitzGerald, who is slumming it.
The Turn of the Screw (2009)–Starring Michelle Dockery and everyone’s boyfriend Dan Stevens. (Alternate title: Rapetown: A Ghost Story)

On Halloween night, Eileen likes to dress up like Miss Jessel and stand under your bedroom window. Don’t wave to her. She likes to stay in character.

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