Alex Secker’s review published on Letterboxd:
It says a lot that this film genuinely unnerved me. I remember the first time I saw it, I must have been fairly young, and it left me unsettled. Watching it again as an adult and it is no less creepy.
I understand some people struggle with older films, especially black and white films, but I don't. The acting style is a little dated and obviously the film is somewhat old and worn, but that doesn't detract from just how well this movie is made.
The story is played like a mystery, and slowly the clues create a larger whole, coming together for a rather unsettling and suggestive climax. There's a lot of uncertainty under the surface here, including a slight paedophilia aspect that adds a real uncomfortable feel to proceedings.
The performances are all top notch, especially those of the kids, and the use of sound really helps create the amtophsheric mood. The moment in the garden, where all sound suddenly stops only to return moments later, is one of the most eerily played moments ever committed to screen, and just further adds to the overall feel of the piece. The use of lullabies and music boxes to compliment the soundtrack is also expertly played, even the opening moments (a black screen with children singing overlayed) is about as unsettling as anything "conjured" up by James Wan (see what I did there?).
The way the film is shot is beautiful, with the light following the characters, leaving lots of darkened halls and corners all around the space. It creates a sense of unease, forever you're looking into the darkness in the fear that something might hop out. It was shot by Freddie Francis, who would later go on to become one of the best horror directors in the business, and his talent for creating uncomfortable and slightly off compositions is on full display here.
When the "ghosts" do appear it is done in such a way that we're never truly sure if it happened. It leads to the suggestion that we may not even been seeing the truth, but that perhaps our protagonist is totally deranged and making the whole thing up. This never really gets answered, nor does it need to, and by the time the credits roll you're left feeling so awkward and uncertain that its hard not to let the film linger in the back of your mind.
But really this is a film about a single image, at least to my mind.
As Governess Miss Giddens sits basking in the sun, and the young girl, Flora, begins to hum a tune eerily similar to a music box found earlier, a slow and faint buzzing sound rises. Giddens looks up across the lake and sees a woman standing in amongst the reeds. Not moving, not doing anything. Stood in a seemingly impossible place and just staring back at her. It is perhaps one of the most horrifying images I have ever seen and genuinely kept me up at night when I was younger. Even now it unsettles me to no end. Nothing happens here. The "ghost" doesn't do anything, and yet it makes the hairs on my arms stand up.
The way this shot is framed, the way the composition is layered so that there are things in the foreground, we, the audience have to peer into the screen to even be sure something is there, is terrifying. It stays with me now just as much as it did then.
It may not be the most exciting or the most fast paced horror film, but it is most definitely one of the most unsettling, and that's what makes it so good. Definitely recommend you check it out.