The Innocents, 1961.
Directed by Jack Claton.
Starring Deborah Kerr, Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephens and Megs Jenkins.
A woman is employed to care for two children in a country mansion, but things aren’t quite as they seem.
The ghost story is a peculiar breed of horror – it can be clumsily utilised to provide jump-scares as things go bump in the night, or it can probe dark recesses of fractured minds. The better ghost stories are masterful exercises in restraint, shrouded in ambiguity with the capability of sending shivers down the spine. The Innocents (1961) is most definitely one of the better ghost stories.
The film begins with Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) being hired as a governess, where she is sent to a large country mansion to care for two children – Flora (Pamela Franklin) and her brother Miles (Martin Stephens). Yet there’s something a little odd about the children, a menace in small moments shared between the siblings that largely seems to go unnoticed. It would also appear that the mansion is hiding some secrets of its own, and the friendly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), is reluctant to spill.
The Innocents is based on the novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James, and the title is derived from William Archibald’s stage adaptation. However, director Jack Clayton ensures that he brings the story to life in an impressively unique manner, flooding the frame in atmosphere via an excellent use of lighting and positioning. It’s almost easy to make an audience jump, but it takes real talent to establish an air of impending dread. Clayton grips with an engrossing story that offers up multiple readings – could the mansion be haunted by restless ghosts, or is it all in the mind of Miss Giddens?
Clayton cleverly doesn’t offer answers, but instead allows audiences to arrive at their own conclusions. Perhaps most surprisingly for a movie starring two children is the sexual connotations brewing just below the surface – Giddens, an emotionally repressed vicar’s daughter, becomes fascinated by the mansion’s scandalous past, and also by Miles, the young boy expelled from school supposedly without good reason. Miles is played superbly by Stephens, who has an extremely mature manner for a boy of his age, and also a wicked sense of mischief. Franklin is also impressive as Flora, all sweet one second and sinister the next. For child actors they really are quite remarkable. But this is really Deborah Kerr’s movie, and she gives a powerful performance. The ambiguity of the entire film rests on her shoulders, and she completely commits to the part as her mental well-being seemingly erodes before our very eyes – or, alternatively, as she faces the paranormal. You decide.
Released when Hammer horror films were dominating audiences, this British horror dares to do something different. The terror is crafted in a subtle manner, relying on atmosphere to provide the chills. Truman Capote is credited as being responsible for the majority of the script, but it’s director Jack Clayton who really does a stellar job in making the fear real. The Innocents is brave enough to suggest that no-one in this film is truly innocent.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★