MPAA Rating: NR/ Genre: Psychological Horror/ Stars: Deborah Kerr, Michael Redgrave, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins, Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Clytie Jessop/ Runtime: 100 minutes
“Sometimes one can’t help imagining things. Thus it is with this one line of dialogue that we find ourselves walking smack-dab into a horrific and bloodcurdling nightmare. Yet the most remarkable thing about this nightmare from 1961 known as The Innocents, a fancily-filmed in black-and-white adaptation of the classic Gothic ghost story The Turning of the Screw, is how it mostly treats the hauntings that are, or are they (?), occurring on a vast country estate at face value. Indeed the ghosts are most definitely visible to you audience goers, and the children they’re “supposedly” haunting are authentically unsettling. Indeed in the chance that the film has any ambiguity at all it is, for the vast majority, left for film’s end. Indeed this is a story who’s most fervent readers have spent more than a century debating just how exactly should it be read and approached: Is it a story about otherworldly possession, or is it about a woman turning her own sense of paranoia and sexual repression into a nightmarish fantasy that she ultimately projects onto two innocent children? Indeed while the film adaption does manage to possess quite the firm guess towards the answer there is nevertheless, thanks to the active imagination of the main character, still very much room to doubt and to ponder long after the credits roll.
The plot is as follows: When a neglectful uncle (Michael Redgrave) puts her in charge of his orphaned niece and nephew, a young woman named Miss Giddens seems a bit overwhelmed, but simultaneously grateful; after all not only is it her first position as a governess, but she really needs the job, and she clearly loves children with the forlorn passion that comes when a person finds themselves unwillingly childless. The only caveat he has towards her having the job is if she promises to do one thing and one thing only: take “supreme authority” over his estate, and never bother him with any questions or concerns about the kids; suffice it to say whereas the vast majority of governesses would see this as godsend and might be smugly pleased at being handed absolute authority, our heroine almost seems worried borderline unsure if she doesn’t fully trust herself when it comes to that much power over young people. Upon arrival at the man’s country manor and the meeting of her wards, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and later Miles (Martin Stephens), she briefly turns into Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music: all warmth and competent support, and while she proves herself a lax disciplinarian, the children are both uncommonly precocious albeit with suspiciously adult manners. Unfortunately it isn’t long thereafter however that Miss Giddens unwittingly learns the horrifying truth about just how her predecessor died as well as what happened to the predecessor’s lover, and from those seeds of madness a nightmare is born……
Now when the film first debuted back in 1961 a man by the name of Bosley Crowther found in, typical snooty critic fashion, a few things to sneer at when it came to this film. What were his issues you may ask? Well, according to external research Mr. Crowther not only did sneer at the film’s lack of ambiguity, but also strongly believed that the film’s atmosphere at least “should clobber the gullible,” and that “the sophisticated viewer” would want more terror on screen. Perhaps his most interesting claim though was that he felt the viewer deserved a more solid answer, if you see the supernatural being the result of our main heroine having some severe yet hidden under the surface mental issues, in regards to what exactly was wrong with her from a psychological perspective. To be fair and blunt all at once however: He may be entitled to those opinions, but the man really is selling this film tremendously short. I say this because, for starters, the film’s director manages to do an amazing job of filling the screen with portent and a sense of emotional oppression right from the word go especially with the little girl’s singing literally leaving a few chills going down your spine. Also the cinematography on display in this cinematic odyssey is consistently breathtaking. It should be mentioned that although the DP would have quite the healthy career as a horror director himself, including Tales from the Crypt, he would still ultimately be better known for his cinematography on films like Cape Fear, The Elephant Man, and Glory which would him an Oscar. After seeing The Innocents however, one can definitely see why he was in such demand as virtually every frame of this film is both stark and sharp with deep blacks, or packed with ominously florid detail, as if trying to crowd out the darkness that we know must creep into the lives of the characters.
Ultimately however, this is a film that rides on Kerr, Franklin and Stephens and they all deliver as we see that the latter 2 manage to give quite the coy, knowing performances, which they also manage to utilize in showcasing insinuated malice mixed with childish sweetness and Victorian politesse and they pull it off beautifully. Indeed I will even go so far as to say that Franklin and Stephens are perfectly cast because they do an amazing job of making their characters constantly seem like wide-eyed innocents…. even as she’s loving on the spider that’s devouring a poor, helpless butterfly in her possession, or he’s turning a typical bedtime kiss on his governess’ cheek into a lip-lock no child his age should ever think of putting on anyone just yet. Plus it also doesn’t hurt that Clayton fills the screen with disturbing images and gives the film around them a constant sense of lushness falling into decay, suggesting the children and their sense of youthfulness is slowly undergoing a subtle metamorphosis into something far more disturbing and terrifying. So I would just like to argue that if the white roses shedding petals and falling into rot aren’t psychological enough for Mr. Crowther, then maybe he should just be content with the child-statue, still clinging to the hands of a severed adult-statue all the while a roach begins to wriggling out of its mouth. Indeed this film’s symbolism may never approach subtlety, but at the same time that still doesn’t make it any less effective. Kerr’s performance meanwhile is also electric as we see that it is one which is a constant state of vibration from both complicated tension and vulnerability, as we get a portrayal that attempts to communicate the internal struggle of a woman constantly at war with herself, but who must find it within herself to try and set the battle aside for the sake of creating an idealized childhood for her charge……a struggle that I will leave up to you to determine the outcome of for yourself by film’s end.
All in all The Innocents ends just as the source material does: abruptly and without explanation, both in regards to either the climactic chain of events, but also in regards to what exactly led Miss Giddens to such desperate measures. The suddenness of the finale also does a wonderful job of leaving plenty of questions open, and it is due to that that we see room for doubt start to slowly, but surely creep in throughout the final act, that seems to suggest that no matter what horrors audiences are seeing on the screen, the governess’ reactions to said terrors are just as outsized and dangerous as the hauntings, should they really exist, themselves. In that sense, Clayton and the writers do a fantastic job of leaving enough enigmas in order to keep the story from feeling didactic. Put simply dear reader, The Innocents is a classic of the genre because of how it suggests that horror is as much in the victim’s reaction as in the victimizer’s actions, and wherever the horror comes from be it actual ghosts, or in ghosts of the mind it’s still no less equally unnerving, and no less terrifying, and trust me when I say that with that outlook…there really is no need for ambiguity. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Innocents a solid 4 out of 5.
Note from the writer Again this is where the trailer for this film would be, but upon viewing the trailer, I have come to the conclusion that the trailer really did not do its intended job of properly selling the film; therefore I am choosing not to put the trailer up out of fear that it would err you away from what is, to the contrary, quite the wonderful little horror film. Thanks again for reading and I’ll see you…at the movies! Ag