The English are a tricky bunch, they never talk about what’s really going on, and when they do they never say what they really think. So of course they never bother listening to each other, because what would be the point? And that’s all the movie The Nanny is really, a bunch of English people not listening to each other. Now I realise that this does not sound like a terribly promising horror movie, but this movie is directed by Seth Holt, so it is, in fact, absolutely effing brilliant. I really cannot say enough good things about Seth, and it is a damn tragedy that he only got make a few films because this, and the Scream of Fear, are two of the best Hammer films I’ve seen.
He is an absolute genius with sound. Where Scream of Fear was all about noise, The Nanny is all about silence. There is so much silence in this film, it’s enough to drive anyone mad. Nobody is talking, nobody is doing, they’re just pretending everything is normal as their lives go to bloody pieces. And the things Seth does with the screen, just simple framings that unnerve you, terrify you, and break your damned heart. He’s got Kubrick’s eye for composition but, there’s an ache to the camera’s stillness, as if it hurts it to only be able to watch.
And the faces! Holt has the boy stick his bottom lip out in defiant grumpiness for the whole movie. It’s such a tiny thing, but it’s so constant you realise it’s the only thing staying in place while everything around it falls apart. Imagine the level of thought that goes into deciding that? And there’s a moment with Bette Davis at the beginning when she’s sitting in the car, when the boy is cruel to her, there’s a deep sadness in her eyes that echoes through the rest of the movie, and without it, without this one moment the whole film wouldn’t work. I don’t know what he said to them to draw these things out but the central question of the movie - is it the boy or the Nanny who’s the bad ‘un - rests on these two expressions. Without it you’d have a one twist movie. With them, the twist unfolds so slowly that you don’t even care about it after a while. You become so close to the Nanny and the Boy, that it’s no longer a question of who’s bad, but what happened to them to make them this way. It’s a marvellous piece of directing that he raises this little potboiler to one of the saddest horror films that I have ever seen. I’ve absolutely no doubt in my mind that if Seth had lived he would have made a bonafide masterpiece one day. I honestly believe he was that good. I’m certain The Nanny and Scream of Fear were just average thrillers on the page, but he took what he was given and he made these terrifyingly human horrors by using the two senses a movie fills - sight and sound - in the most thoughtful and expressive way he could. Gosh, I would love to have met him and shook his hand. I think he was a special talent, and I’m glad Hammer got to use him.
And of course, there’s the performances from Bette Davis and the kid. These too, I suspect, are in large part down to our Seth. The temptation must have been huge for Bette to throw in a few amusingly mean expressions, an arched eyebrow, perhaps a hint of sneer. But instead she removes every ounce of diva, doing her best to exist as little as possible, because that’s where the nanny is most comfortable. Davis said Holt was the most ruthless director she ever worked with, so I can only assume the total diva removal was not entirely down to her. It’s so restrained you don’t know where you are with her, and so what seems obvious - that as the old crone Nanny, of course she’s the bad ‘un - is so far from obvious that you have to wonder if it is the kid who is the bad ‘un.
Now, the kid is no acting genius, but he manages to be both rude and relatable, obnoxious and vulnerable, bully and victim, all at the same time. This, let’s face it, is no mean feat. He reminds me of what’s it like when you’re a kid and no-one listens to you. Everybody cares, but nobody listens. All the adults treat him as if he’s made of glass and will shatter into something that no-one can ever put back together. But one of the best things about the kid’s performance is how much tougher he is than every single adult in the picture. They’re all so damn fragile with their illusions and their routines and their ever dwindling reserves of the strength they need to keep it all together. The aunt is so bloody weak she’s genuinely in danger of dying from a surprise announcement. And all the time there’s this nuisance underfoot who's so tough he doesn’t even care that everyone’s treading on him.
It’s such a small movie really, rarely moving out of the claustrophobic family flat (that’s another neat touch I would probably ascribe to Holt because anyone else would have set this movie in some sprawling mansion in the country). Holt fills this tiny space with the intense anger and frustration people feel when something’s wrong with the people they love and they don’t know what it is. They don’t know what it is so much that frankly they’d rather it didn’t exist at all. Yes, it is a very English horror film because Holt understands that what horrifies English people more than not knowing what’s going on, is having to find out what really is. We’d all prefer to be able to pretend that everyone else is happy, because then we can get on with the all consuming job of being miserable on our own. After all, a world where a talent like Seth Holt only gets to make a few films is a world that leaves you with an awful lot of questions. Speaking of which…