| In Victorian England, the uncle of orphaned niece Flora and nephew Miles hires Miss Giddens as governess to raise the children at his estate with total independence and authority. Soon after her arrival, Miss Giddens comes to believe that the spirits of the former governess Miss Jessel and valet Peter Quint are possessing the children. Miss Giddens decides to help the children to face and exorcise the spirits.
Among the many works of gothic fiction that came up during the revival of the genre in the 1880s, Henry James’ classic ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw”, is certainly one of the most intriguing and fascinating of all. The reasons for this are many, but one of the most important has been the ambiguous way James uses his ghosts to explore the psychological issues of his characters. This ambiguity has led to countless debates about the nature of the plot, as the way James wrote the story has allowed many different interpretations about it over the years. Obviously, this has resulted in the fact that most of the many adaptations to other media that have been done about the novel presents a different way to see the story. Fortunately, the 1961 movie, “The Innocents”, is somewhat an exception, as this masterpiece of 60’s gothic horror manages to keep the seductive ambiguity of the novel.
The screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote manages to capture the exact same atmosphere of ambiguity and paranoia that impregnates the pages of James’ classic novella. In fact, one could say that the writers take the story’s ambiguity one step beyond as they joyfully play with every element the story has to offer: supernatural horror, psychological drama, and even a subtle yet strong nod to the voluptuous sensuality of Victorian sexual repression. The plot twists and turns as the story unfolds, toying with every possible explanation for the strange events that are taking place, but never giving too many clues, wisely keeping all the mystery and suspense till the very last moment. Finally, the superb development of the characters is another element that makes this movie one of the most powerful tales of horror ever put on film.
After directing the internationally acclaimed ‘Room at the Top’ (1959), director Jack Clayton once again shows off his talents to transform literary works into classy films that remain faithful to the essence of their sources. Focusing entirely on Miss Giddens and the two children, Clayton stays in line with the ambiguous tone of the script, creating a claustrophobic character-driven horror based almost entirely on suggestion, leaving to the audience’s imagination the nature of the haunting and the source of the those unspeakable horrors that seem to take place in the house. And of course, the star of Clayton’s masterpiece is without a doubt the impressive work done by cinematographer Freddie Francis, who using black-and-white photography creates an ominous atmosphere of dread that’s frightening in all its beauty.
Deborah Kerr is perfectly cast as a prim governess who is given charge of two strange children in a huge, rambling English country estate. Kerr was known for playing nuns and nannies, and was the epitome of British refinement. So to see her playing this sprightly governess, who gradually unravels under the influence of the creepy goings on taking place in the house around her, adds an extra jolt of shock to her performance. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen her play a role better than she does here, with perhaps the exception of ‘Black Narcissus’ (1947).
Megs Jenkins and Michael Redgrave are also great as Mrs. Grose and The Uncle. Redgrave’s screen time is minimal, but he makes the most of it. The performances that easily equal Kerr’s portrayal belong to Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as Miles and Flora, especially Stephens. Facially, he is childlike, but in his body movement, choice of actions, and interpretation of dialog (i.e. Miles’s morbid and disturbing poem) suggest maturity and adulthood. In a scene when he intimately and grossly kisses Miss Giddens, he shows no sign of discomfort, reminding us why British horror movie kids are so terrifying.
“The Innocents” is one of the best horror movies of all time with a hefty amount of symbolism, some excellent performances, an amazing creep-out factor, a fantastically original story, and an ending that leaves you with just as many questions as it does shivers. It’s a film that reminds us that nowadays in haunted house horror, we may be used to poltergeist activity, but a real ghost doesn’t terrorize much at all. They linger in an area of the house and the mind, leaving a subtle warning that you’re never alone.
HAPPY HALLOWEEN EVERYONE!