To celebrate Halloween, many filmgoers will often search for a scary movie to help get themselves in the mood for a time of ghosts, goblins, monsters, children trick-or-treating, and adults partying in costumes they’ll regret wearing in the morning. So, with Halloween only a week away, I’d like to recommend my favorite horror film for viewing, as something to help folks get into the Halloween spirit (so to speak): The Innocents, a black & white gothic ghost story from 1961.
The Innocents is masterfully helmed by English director Jack Clayton, which is surprising since it’s only his second feature, following Room at the Top (1959), the celebrated “kitchen sink” drama credited with helping to launch the British New Wave. Although The Innocents is based on Henry James’s famous 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, the movie is more directly drawn from a 1950 stage adaptation by William Archibald, also called The Innocents, from which the film gets its variant (and more descriptive) title. Archibald also collaborated on the film’s script with Truman Capote (in a rare screenwriting stint) and with additional dialogue by John Mortimer.
As I’ve said before, I’m not especially big on horror films, even though the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and ’40s spawned my youthful interest in film. One of my reasons for not liking horror anymore is because the genre is based on fearing things rather than understanding them. But I become intrigued when the source of the horror is within the protagonist — rather than being something external — because such stories encourage us to examine our concepts of identity and self. So, although I probably wouldn’t sit still for a horror movie about a main character battling monsters, a film told from the perspective of a werewolf (The Wolf Man [1941, 2010], The Curse of the Werewolf , etc.) or any other “resist the beast” protagonist would more easily grab my attention.
Until very recently, I understood that a horror film had to contain some sort of fantastical or otherworldly element — the dead returning to life, humans transformed into other creatures, beings from other worlds, and so on — to qualify for the genre. If a film’s story concerned only subject matter that could be found in the lived world — serial killers or the witchfinder generals of history, for example — then it wasn’t a horror movie. Such a film might be a thriller or a frightening mystery movie, I thought, but an absence of any supernatural theme disqualified it as horror. However, conventional wisdom now says that some films about deranged humans, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and the typical slasher flick, or other scary movies with real-world evils, can now also be counted as horror. Moreover, two silent films frequently categorized as horror, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), both starring Lon Chaney, exclusively concern dramatis personae that are ostensibly mortal humans; the title characters’ deformity or disfigurement, things that can happen in the lived world, serve as the films’ only “terrors.” So, I seem to stand corrected. What does all this have to do with The Innocents?
Because Clayton’s film is based on the well-known Turn of the Screw, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the film’s driving force — as in its literary source — is the uncertainty whether the movie fits at all into my earlier definition of what a horror film can be. Are the happenings on screen a supernatural story of ghosts that are “real” within the narrative? Or are the happenings only the product of the protagonist’s repression-fueled imagination? The Innocents never answers these questions in any unambiguous way. I think that the film gives slightly more weight (but not too much) to the all-in-the-head side, but if more were done to enhance the real-ghost-story side, this would probably have made The Innocents look like a generic horror movie, which is something Clayton wanted to avoid. (He made the picture in response to the superficiality of Hammer Films’s popular monster movies, one of the most conspicuous worldwide examples of British cinema at the time.)
|Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens|
The Innocents’ story concerns Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), an unmarried minister’s daughter approaching middle age in Victorian England. Suddenly needing a livelihood, the inexperienced Miss Giddens accepts a position as governess to the orphaned niece and nephew of the absentee owner of a country estate (Michael Redgrave in a cameo). Being a man-about-town and world traveler, and now saddled with the children upon the death of his brother, the bachelor uncle makes it clear that he does not want them in his life and that he is never for any reason to be bothered with whatever goes on at the estate. Miss Giddens travels to the large country mansion, where she meets her grade-school-aged charges, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin). The children are charming, but they also act disturbingly mature — at one point, Miles kisses Miss Giddens goodnight lingeringly on the lips — as well as secretive. As the days go by, Miss Giddens (but no one else) sees two spectral figures, a man and a woman, appearing and disappearing on the estate. She learns that the young governess who preceded her was in an abusive relationship with the uncle’s brutish valet, which included indiscreet sex throughout the mansion, and when the valet mysteriously died, the young governess drowned herself. Without anyone else’s corroboration, Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the figures she sees are the ghosts of the valet and the young governess, who are trying to possess the bodies of Miles and Flora in order to continue their sexual relationship. Miss Giddens takes it upon herself to exorcize the ghosts from the children by getting the young ones to acknowledge their (implied) past sexual abuse by the valet and former governess.
If my synopsis makes The Innocents sound like heavy going, it isn’t. The thorny issues are only subtext that enhances the film’s inchoate sense of dread. Released in the U.S. by Twentieth Century Fox in 1961, the movie needed to be passed by the bowdlerizing Hollywood Production Code, which had been faltering and liberalizing since the 1950s but which was still in force. As a result, the sexual abuse is only insinuated, and some viewers contest whether any such abuse is part of the story at all. But the implication adds to the idea that Miss Giddens is motivated by sexual repression. However, the Production Code’s approval slightly hampers the mood when, at one point, the children are said to be speaking in profanities, and the strongest language that the audience hears is when Miles calls Miss Giddens a “damned hussy.”
The main reason why I’m recommending The Innocents is because this has been the only film I’ve ever seen to really scare me. I first saw this movie on television when I was very young — in grade school myself, I think — and very much into monster movies. Hearing that The Innocents was a horror film, I made an effort (in those pre-VCR days) to see it on TV when it was shown. Back then, there was a certain formula that I wanted horror movies to follow: monster comes (back) to life; monster causes mayhem; monster is killed at the film’s conclusion (at least, in certain cases, until the next sequel) — a tidy way for a kid to mentally “control” whatever is frightening, don’t you think? And most vintage horror films did indeed follow the life-mayhem-killed pattern. One reason why The Innocents unnerved my younger self so much is because it not only didn’t follow the pattern, but it threw the whole pattern into question by problematizing the concept of what exactly a monster was. (Being so young when I first saw The Innocents, I didn’t consciously pick up on the pervasiveness of the film’s sexual themes, which, as I said, were muted to begin with.)
Beginning with the sound of Flora’s a-cappella voice singing a mournful song of lost love and death over the Twentieth Century Fox and Cinemascope logos, The Innocents hints at haunting things to come, and it soon delivers. Moreover, the film contains some of the most unsettling images (by cinematographer Freddie Francis) I’ve ever seen, but they’re not unsettling in any obvious way: even the most brightly lit scenes convey an air of menace. To this day, the close-up of a bug crawling out the mouth of a decorative stone cherub stays with me as the cinema image that did the most to send chills up my spine.
Also crucial to the film’s effectiveness are the preternaturally precocious performances of Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as the children, the “innocents” of the sardonic title. With their well-behaved manners but their simultaneous ability to suggest a dark side, the youngsters balance on a knife’s edge between the adorable and the uncanny. At the film’s beginning, Miles is away at boarding school but is expelled for hurting and swearing profanities at the other boys. When Miss Giddens meets him, Miles is impeccably polite and well spoken, the very picture of good behavior — he couldn’t possibly be guilty of the accusation! But he is evasive when she questions him about his expulsion, and he sometimes turns her queries back on herself with apparent adult-like cunning.
|Pamela Franklin as Flora, Kerr, and Martin Stephens as Miles|
In scenes such as these, we get the idea that Miss Giddens’ visions may be the product of her repressed attraction to the uncle. (Why else would the film hire a well-known star like Michael Redgrave for such a small role?) But the characters of Miles and Flora are so schizophrenic, and the young Stephens’ and Franklin’s performances are so disquieting, that we might also think they are indeed possessed by demons. (How could Flora foretell that Miles would soon be returning from school?) By maintaining such a precise equilibrium between the psychological and the seemingly supernatural, The Innocents keeps us guessing — in an intriguing and entertaining way — what’s really going on.
And it makes for enthralling viewing for film-lovers in the mood for a horror movie, whether it’s Halloween or not.