October 18, 2016
If I could only use one word to describe THE NANNY, my choice would be “measured”. This is a slow burn of a film, a really insidious piece of work that sneaks up on you when you least expect it. It deals with child murder, parental neglect, back alley abortions and, most of all, madness. But it does all of that in a real low key style, never descending (or ascending, depending on how much you like that kind of thing) into histrionics. It's a thriller in the classic sense of the word, with its chills and thrills generated out of pure characterization and precision narrative control.
So when I say the film is a slow burn, do not take that to mean “padded” or “dull”. The set-up is simple. Joey, a ten-year old boy, has returned home after a two year absence. His father is your typical British stiff upper lip. His mother seems to be one step away from a nervous breakdown. She can't even bring herself to go pick up her son to bring him home. Instead, she sends the live-in Nanny (she's never referred to by a name, just “Nanny”). Once he returns home, Joey begins acting up, insisting he move his things into a smaller guest bedroom instead of the room prepared for him by the Nanny. He refuses to eat any food prepared by the Nanny, refuses to take a bath without locking the door, and generally acts like your typical problem child. While all this is going on, we learn more about the Nanny and how integral she is in the home. She's just as much the Nanny for the mother as she is for Joey.
Along the way, we also learn that Joey had a little sister named Susy.
It takes the film a good 40 or so minutes before we learn why the mother is as unnerved as she is and more importantly, why little Joey spent two years away from his family. Little Susy drowned in the bathtub one afternoon and Joey was the one who killed her, leading to his stay in a facility for troubled children. Or did he kill her? Joey claims it wasn't him. It was the Nanny. His refusal to eat her dinners is out of fear that she will poison him. He refuses to bathe without locking the door because he fears that she will drown him too.
But who is really to blame for all of this? Was it Joey who poisoned his mother's food, leading her to be hospitalized? Or was it the Nanny, tricking everyone into believing it was Joey, removing the mother from the home so she can finally take care of Joey once and for all without interruption?
Once all the pieces are in place, this quietly chilling little film barrels towards its conclusion with unnerving intensity. The finale boasts a triple whammy of nastiness that makes a remarkable impact. In terms of sheer visual terror, it cannot hold a candle to that shower curtain being pulled aside in PSYCHO. But in terms of raw emotional terror, the kind that creeps up on you, slowly wrapping its claws around your throat, THE NANNY is tough to match. This is a truly cunning bit of filmmaking, expertly conceived and executed, that earns its suspense and terror honestly, rather than relying on cheap scares and gimmicks.
The whodunit aspects of the film are engaging, playing off the audience's preconceptions of the “troubled child” and “nosy nanny”, character types that pervade these kinds of thrillers. Either one could be the guilty party. Either one could be mad or bad. Regardless, neither answer provides catharsis. When we finally learn the truth, its even more horrible than we could have imagined. In the end, THE NANNY proves to be every bit as great of a tragedy as it is a great thriller, easily one of the best Hammer productions ever made.