(director: Seth Holt; screenwriter: Jimmy Sangster/from the book by Evelyn Piper; cinematographer: Harry Waxman; editor: James Needs; music: Richard Rodney Bennett; cast: Bette Davis (The Nanny), Wendy Craig (Virgie Fane), Jill Bennett (Aunt Pen), James Villiers (Bill Fane), William Dix (Joey Fane), Pamela Franklin (Bobbie), Jack Watling (Dr. Medman); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jimmy Sangster ; 20th Century Fox; 1965-UK)
“Bette Davis is electrifying as the prim and proper nanny.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Ex-editor Seth Holt solidly directs this disturbing British mystery chiller, which is based on the novel by Evelyn Piper and penned by Jimmy Sangster. It was made for Hammer Films, a studio best noted for its cheaply made gothic tales. Bette Davis is electrifying as the prim and proper nanny to a neurotic family. Joey (William Dix) is a bratty 10-year-old just released from a mental institution after a stay of two years. He is convinced the nanny wants to murder him, and suspects that she drowned his sister two years earlier. That was a crime he was suspected of committing and led to his being sent away.
Davis does a marvelous job of keeping her psycho nature under control for the film’s first half, as everyone believed Joey killed his sister and still no one believes him except for his teenage girl neighbor, Bobbie (Pamela Franklin). Joey’s big-shot father (Villiers) is more interested in work than in his family and is always absent, while Joey’s harried neurotic mother Virginia (Wendy Craig) doesn’t know how to navigate the family problems. She nearly dies from food poisoning after eating one of the nanny’s meals, while Joey refuses to eat. When she is hospitalized, Joey refuses to stay home alone with his nemesis. This results in his Aunt Penelope (Jill Bennett) being asked to stay with him. The aunt suffers from a heart condition and must not be far from her heart medicine at all times. This factor will come into play later. Meanwhile Joey and the nanny go at each other with the nanny getting over because she remains cool in contrast to the excitable kid. When Joey flees from the nanny accusing her of trying to drown him in the bathtub, this is too outlandish a tale for the aunt to swallow and as a punishment sends him to his room. When she later checks on him, she finds the nanny trying to smother him with a pillow and goes to stop her. In the struggle, the aunt has a heart attack and can’t reach her pills.
The film is resolved with Davis confessing that the sister’s death was an accident due to her negligence in leaving her unattended. But why the nanny continues to go on her psycho rampage is resolved in a far too contrived way just to make her character less villainous and more sympathetic. The film remains strong in its creepy atmosphere and in Davis’ maddeningly restraint performance, but ends on an artificial note.
REVIEWED ON 2/20/2004 GRADE: C+