Picks and Pans Review: The Turn of the Screw

updated 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Showtime (Sat., Aug. 12, 10 P.M. ET)

C-

The novella from which this hour-long Nightmare Classics presentation is adapted is Henry James's most popular, accessible work of the same title. Although he called it "a fairy-tale pure and simple," most fans hail it as one of the greatest ghost stories ever written.

You wouldn't know it from this dispirited adaptation starring Amy Irving as a Victorian governess. Of course, anyone who remembers The Innocents, the 1961 movie version, knows that perfection has already been achieved. In haunting black and white (back off, Mr. Turner!), it starred the fabulous Deborah Kerr, with a brilliant screenplay co-written by Truman Capote.

The Turn of the Screw takes place in late 19th-century England in a nearly deserted country manor house. It's about a morally rigid governess who begins to believe that the orphaned boy and girl she's caring for are possessed by evil spirits. She starts seeing apparitions that match descriptions of ex-servants at the houseā€”a disreputable valet, Mr. Quint, and the previous governess. The two had been lovers, then died in mysterious ways. The governess becomes obsessed with protecting the children from these dead servants, who may only be figments of her imagination. Since James wasn't known for his story lines but for his character studies, the goings-on around Bly Manor have been bucked up a bit. One addition is a silly subplot that has Mr. Quint involved in a murder for which he's hanged. Another is a more dramatic ending. So whom do we thank for "improving" James? Director Graeme (Frances) Clifford or writers Robert Hutchison and James Miller?

Amy Irving is game but miscast. A sexually repressed Victorian governess she isn't. (Her English accent makes you appreciate Meryl Streep.) Not to pick on a child, but too bad newcomer Paul Balthazar Getty (J. Paul's great-grandson), as the 14-year-old Master Miles, wasn't possessed to give a stronger performance. Faring better, in a smaller role, is David Hemmings as the uncle who hires Irving.

Generally, though, this Turn of the Screw needs tightening.

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