When a governess arrives at an enormous mansion on the country side, she slowly but surely starts to get terrified by two children playing haunting games with her mind.
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 tells the story has allowed many different interpretations about it over the years. Part supernatural horror and part psychological drama (not to mention the subtext of repressed sexuality that permeates the novel), the richness of ‘Turn of the Screw’ is vast, and this has allowed a wide variety of adaptations to other media, each offering a different way to read the story. The 1961 movie ‘The Innocents’ is an adaptation that decides to remains true to James‘ vision, managing to keep the seductive ambiguity of the novel.
In ‘The Innocents’, Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a young and inexperienced governess hired by a wealthy man (Michael Redgrave) to work at his country home and take care of his nice and nephew, as he is currently unable of (and actually has no real interest in) playing the part of father figure for the two orphaned children. After her arrival, Miss Giddens meets Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), the housekeeper, and Flora (Pamela Franklin), one of the young children now under her care. Everything seems to be working perfectly until she receives the notice that the other kid, Miles (Martin Stephens), has been expelled from his school due to his bad behavior. After Miles returns from school, Miss Giddens will begin to experience strange events around the house, hearing and seeing eerie apparitions that make her suspect that the house is haunted. The strange behavior of the two children will only increase her suspicion that someone or something not from this world wants to take control of the innocents.
Following Henry James‘ short story in a very faithful way, 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. The keyword of the film is ambiguity, as in fact, it could be said that the writers have taken the story’s inherent 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 about the exact nature of what’s going on, 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.
Two years 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. Clayton enhances the inherent sensuality of James‘ novel with such an elegant subtlety that’s both unsettling and fascinating. And of course, the star of Clayton‘s masterpiece is without a doubt the impressive work done by legendary cinematographer Freddie Francis (later becoming a director for Hammer films), whose use of a sumptuous black-and-white photography creates an ominous atmosphere of dread that’s frightening in all its beauty.
While Francis‘ cinematography is definitely a highlight of the film, ‘The Innocents’ wouldn’t be the same without the remarkable performances done by its cast. Deborah Kerr‘s acting as Miss Giddens is a powerful dramatic tour de force, as she literally becomes her character, transmitting that subtle mix of naivety and repressed sensuality that fits her character perfectly, and one can truly sympathize with her as she descends into a spiral of fear and paranoia. But even in the most dramatic stages, Kerr keeps an appropriate restrain that makes her character real. The titular innocents, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, are perfect in their performances and one wonders how they could achieve the level of maturity necessary to play their roles. Stephens is specially a joy to watch, as he can go from a playful child to a sinister little figure in a frighteningly natural way. Finally, Megs Jenkins adds her talents to the picture as Mrs. Grose, giving an excellent performance in a role that easily could had become a caricature.
Jack Clayton‘s ‘The Innocents’ is a horror movie that bases its impact on the power of suggestion, on the fear of the unseen, and to do that it employs an ominous dark atmosphere and an overtly ambiguous storyline. In a way, while ‘The Innocents’ is by all accounts a ghost story, it also works as a tale of psychological horror, in which the character of Miss Giddens begins to discover a new facet of her own personality via her contact with these children, who may or may not be haunted by external forces. And since she is the only one who experience this, paranoia begins to take over here, isolated in a large mansion without anyone to trust. The subtle, elegant way in which Clayton builds this atmosphere is just breathtaking. Certainly, Clayton knows that to suggest is often more disturbing than to show, and in turn ‘The Innocents’ is imbued with an ambiguity that’s just unnerving. The magic of ‘The Innocents’ is that, just like Henry James‘ novella does, it allows a wide range of possible interpretations for its plot.
Creepy and atmospheric, ‘The Innocents’ is a powerful display of the best talents the British film industry had to offer during the decade of the ’60s, and a textbook on the power of suggestion in cinema. Perhaps only Robert Wise‘s ‘The Haunting’ (another ghost story released two years later) matches this film’s use of cinematography and art design in a way to build up an ominous Gothic atmosphere of horror and desolation. With its excellent cinematography and wonderful work of acting from its cast, ‘The Innocents’ is simply a masterpiece of Gothic horror that easily ranks not only among the best horror movies, but perhaps amongst the best films ever made. Mysterious, disturbing, and enormously captivating, ‘The Innocents’ is a true gem of classic horror cinema.
Trailer on YouTube.