From the DVD case: The Innocents, a chilling adaptation of Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw,” is one of the most frightening films ever made. Set in nineteenth-century England, this gothic ghost story centers around a governess (Deborah Kerr) taking care of two orphans in a foreboding Victorian mansion. As eerie apparitions appear and the children’s behavior becomes strange, the governess begins to wonder about the the fate of the previous governess and her sadistic lover. Could it be that their restless spirits are conspiring to corrupt the innocence of the children, or is this “haunting” a product of her own fears and imagination? (1961, b&w)
Mark says: This movie has everything going for it: a respectable lead actress in Deborah Kerr (as Miss Giddens), two fine child actors in Martin Stephens (Village of the Damned, The Witches) and Pamela Franklin (who later went on to star in such movies as The Legend of Hell House and Satan’s School for Girls) and a wonderfully atmospheric setting in an old, and possibly haunted mansion.
Add to that, fine direction by Jack Clayton, a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, which is based on a novella by Henry James, and you have a combination that is hard to beat.
The Innocents is as much a psychological chiller as it is a ghost story. Miss Giddens is a nervous and sensitive woman (similar to Eleanor Lance from 1963’s The Haunting) who finds herself in charge of two precocious children, Miles and Flora, in a large country mansion.
In this unsettling atmosphere, we are never entirely certain if the apparitions that Miss Giddens sees are real or of her own imagination. Miss Giddens could be wise to the way of the apparitions, or she may simply be mad. Throughout the movie, no other character admits to seeing the ghosts, but we are given cause to believe they may have their own reasons for denying their existence.
A key to this film is Miss Giddens fear that the children have been “corrupted” by the previous governess and valet. This corruption comes in the form of sexual knowledge. Miss Giddens fears the children may have even witnessed sexual acts between the two departed spirits, or even worse.
It is hinted that Miss Giddens has come from a strict, and perhaps repressed background. Furthermore, she may have unexpressed longings for the children’s uncle, who hired her for the job under the condition that she never bothers him with their affairs. However, none of this is clearly stated, and we are left guessing as to the state of Miss Giddens’ mindset. Are these apparitions a manifestation of her own discomfort with sexuality, or is her obsession with the “corruption” of the children founded?
We are treated to some genuinely creepy, and sometimes disturbing scenes as Miss Giddens tries to unravel the mystery of the house. I will never play a game of hide and seek in a large mansion after seeing this movie. I will also never allow children to hum haunting ballads while dancing in the rain beside a haunted lake. Just call me cautious.
The one fault I found in this film is that it seems to hit a plateau of eeriness too early. I was constantly expecting the spooky index to be kicked up a notch, and was a little disappointed when it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, though, this film is plenty creepy and definitely worth your time.
I might add, you can watch this movie as a straight ghost story, and it is just as good.
Scene to watch for: That’s no way to kiss your governess.
Line to listen for: “What if the Lord just leaves me here to walk around? Isn’t that what happens to some people?”
Supplemental reading: An analysis of Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! out of 5.