Movies have the power to engage; some by stirring our emotions, others by testing the intellectual voracity of the audience. Jack Clayton’s courageous adaptation of Henry James novella, The Turning of the Screw, rechristened The Innocents (1961) does both, sending the proverbial chill down our collective backsides as a bonus, while encouraging varied interpretations about the slow unraveling of a young woman’s psyche. Is sexually repressed governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) truly experiencing elements of the supernatural come to wreak havoc on this pastoral, if isolated, English estate she calls home? Or is her lack of life experience and an overactive imagination playing tricks, generating hallucinations before her very eyes? Truman Capote and William Archibald’s screenplay never paints us into a narrative corner with definitive proof either way, and, neither does Deborah Kerr’s seminal performance as this tortured and chaste caregiver, who winds up needing more than a little TLC and ounce of redemption by the final fade out.
Capote, who is credited with writing virtually all the dialogue, actually based his prose on Archibald’s stagecraft, using Henry James’ novella merely as framework rather than his definitive guideline. Capote also managed to interject a Freudian subtext into this traditional ‘southern gothic’ thriller, transplanted to this courtly Tudor manor of an English lord. In retrospect, The Innocents is a sort of Downton Abbey for restless spirits and demonic possession; its lush foliage and serene natural splendor caught in an elegant decay; the pall of the dead lingering around every cobwebbed corner or cautiously looming from the peripheries along each hallway, upstairs attic and antechamber. Director, Clayton was circumspect in his translation from page to screen, determined The Innocents should not mimic the then popular cycle in Hammer horror films, that, personally, he found generally lacking in subtly and, on the whole, rather garish and tasteless. No one could accuse The Innocents of being that!
Here is a film utterly saturated in gorgeous imagery; Freddie Francis’ cinematography a sumptuous feast for the eye. The natural beauty, even the stately grandeur of Tudor architecture is, alas, plagued by an element of morbidity; Clayton’s use of uncanny noises with seemingly no source, married to Francis’ moodily lit interiors, creates a perverse vacuum of baited anticipation; the morose languor of the piece gradually giving way to a beguiling, if utterly paralytic trepidation, able to cause the heart to skip a beat. Interestingly, Henry James deplored his own authorship, referring to The Turn of the Screw as his ‘shameless potboiler’. Indeed, the film wastes no time plummeting into this abyss – the first forty-five seconds of screen time dedicated to nothing except a child’s lonely hum, taking on an ominous pseudo-religious point of reference. Thereafter, The Innocents plies us with elements of a grand ghost story. But it gradually unwinds with unease from a centric hub of Miss Giddon’s unsuspecting naiveté.
Jack Clayton was to endure considerable criticism for distilling James’ thematic elements into more straightforward spookiness. Fair enough, Clayton mangles his Freudian subtext – on occasion, badly. But set aside this narrative fumble and the rest is visually arresting, exquisitely concocted and a genuine scalp-prickling bone-chiller besides. Capote and Archibald’s screenplay oozes with uncertainty and menace. Only in hindsight does The Innocents endure as an uber-sophisticated suspense movie, more knowing and sagaciously scripted than its contemporaries; the tried and true ‘dark old house’ formula, remarkably resilient, but herein given to unpretentiousness and wholly absent of cliché. Lest we forget, The Innocents hit theaters just a scant three years after William Castles’ ghoulish, though occasionally menial, House on Haunted Hill (1958). It also predates Robert Wise’s psychologically grotesque The Haunting (1963); both films stooping to satisfy the traditionalist’s expectation for a good fright.
But The Innocents is Clayton’s master class ‘horse of a different color’; technically as proficient, if not more so, than the aforementioned movies, yet with a faultless aura of the damned that mingles the subconscious with the supernatural. As such, the movie’s visceral beauty teeters on the edge of a queer psychological gulf; an almost clinical attractiveness, destined to intoxicate, then fray the nerves of our dulcet heroine. Clayton’s aspirations to tell a cerebrally creepy children’s bedtime story does not mark the movie as highbrow; although compared to its contemporaries, The Innocents remains a distinct cut above in both its pedigree and pedagogy: polished film-making to the nth degree, exchanging its exceptional literary source material for some very fine dabbling in the visual arts.
This dichotomous relationship is evident from the very start, even before the first image of a woman’s nervously praying hands appears. Immediately following the 20th Century-Fox trademark, we simply hear a child’s song set against the black nothingness of the Cinemascope screen. The tune is at once virginal yet malignant, its dissenting chords establishing both the putrefaction and elegance that will envelope the audience for the next 100 minutes. Lensed with dream-like precision by cinematographer, Freddie Francis, The Innocents is lyrical, even as its claustrophobic style increasingly transitions to a more apocalyptic foreboding. Like all great works of art – cinematic, or otherwise – The Innocents asks more probing questions than it ultimately answers. However, it does not leave the viewer feeling cheated or unfulfilled. On the contrary, the story rivets us to our seats. It compels our participation, drawing us into the inner anxieties and revelations of our protagonist, but without making any suggestion we should either believe or disbelieve what she inevitably comes to appreciate as the unholy truth.
We begin our tale of peril inside the stately London offices of an unnamed gentleman (Michael Redgrave) interviewing for a governess’ position to care for two orphaned children he has begrudgingly acquired after the death of their parents. The uncle admits to his lack of feeling toward precocious, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and her clever-beyond-his-years brother, Miles (Martin Stephens). Our unnamed lord prefers elegant parties and a life dedicated to the pursuit of his own meaningless pleasures. He has no interest in assuming any real responsibility for the rearing of these two young charges. Interestingly, the uncle is hardly an ogre. In fact, he has been meticulous in affording Flora and Miles the luxuries that only money can buy. Unfortunately, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), the last governess he hired, died on the estate under suspicious circumstances. Her loss nearly broke young Flora’s heart, and it is largely for her sake the uncle sincerely hopes his latest choice of governess will be able, not only to sustain the position, but ingratiate herself as a suitable surrogate mother-figure.
Repressed spinster, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) has applied for the job. But when asked to accept the post after little more than a few moments interview, she finds it difficult to commit…at least, at first. Some strange and otherworldly reservations are restraining her; a cloud of anxiety that quietly lifts from her conscience as her carriage arrives at Bly; the vast country estate where Flora has been living quietly in exile while brother, Miles is away at school. From the moment Miss Giddens meets Flora she is captivated by her angelic and wistful charm; a fortuitous bond that housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) prays will bring peace to the house once more. Mrs. Grose is an odd one indeed; kindly and devoted to her young mistress and Bly, but imbued with an ever-so-slight sense of unease.
This often hints at a more harrowing ancestral past Miss Giddens can only guess at. The next few days pass uneventfully, however, and Miss Giddens and Flora becoming inseparable. Indeed, Miss Giddens sleeps in Flora’s room. But unbeknownst to Miss Giddens, Flora keeps vigilant watch over her; even standing over her bed with a queer smile as she restlessly sleeps. Flora confides in Miss Giddens that, very soon, Miles will be coming home. But as it is still many months before the summer holiday, Miss Giddens doubts Flora’s claim and chalks it up to the longings of a child, desperate to be reunited with her only brother.
Several days later a letter from the school’s headmaster does indeed arrive, informing Miss Giddens Miles has been expelled for being a bad influence on the other boys. Mrs. Grose tells Miss Giddens she cannot imagine Miles ever being a bad influence on anyone, though her tone is strangely reticent about seeing the boy again. Miss Giddens and Flora meet Miles’ train, and although Miss Giddens has every intention of learning the exact reason for Miles’ expulsion, she quietly sets aside her initial inquisitiveness when Miles proves undeniably cordial, if rather astutely too mature for his years, even flirting with her as he presents a fresh bouquet of wild flowers at the station.
For the next few days all is right on the estate as Miles and Flora delight in their play time together. But very soon, Miss Giddens becomes mildly disturbed by their secret world; a kinetic – almost telepathic – sense of communication and understanding that goes well beyond normal familial ties. These feelings of unease are compounded when Miss Giddens witnesses a strange man staring at her in the garden from the estate’s tower ledge. Racing to the rooftop, Miss Giddens finds Miles calmly playing with some pigeons. She asks him who the man was, but Miles suggests he has been alone up there all along.
Sometime later, Miss Giddens agrees to partake in a game of hide and seek with the children to stave off the tedium of a rainy afternoon. Miles hides in the attic. However, on her journey upstairs to find him, Miss Giddens is caught unawares by a shadowy figure skulking behind the curtains in the upstairs hall. Entering the attic, Miss Giddens is astonished when Miles lunges from his hiding spot, violently grabbing her around the neck. Declaring he is hurting her does little to dissuade Miles as he tightens his grip, until Flora bursts in on them. The children then suggest it is Miss Giddens turn to hide. But as she races downstairs and takes her place behind the heavy drapes inside the library, Miss Giddens is suddenly startled to see the leering face of the same man she saw from the garden pressed against the rain-soaked glass pane.
From her detailed description, Mrs. Grose tells Miss Gibbens she must have seen Miss Jessel and Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) – the uncle’s valet. Only she couldn’t have, as both are quite dead. After some consternation, Mrs. Grose reveals the sordid details of an abusive affair between Miss Jessel and Quint; one that included very indiscreet sexual liaisons in front of the servants and the children. Eventually, Quint tired of Jessel and cast her aside before accidentally dying. With her reputation in ruins, Jessel succumbed to extreme melancholia and drowned herself in the nearby lake not long afterward.
To ease their boredom, the children suggest a game of dress-up in old clothes from the attic to put on a show for Miss Giddens and Mrs. Grose. Miss Giddens willingly agrees to the charade. But when Miles recites a cryptic poem about a ‘lost lord’ rising from his grave, Miss Giddens begins to suspect the spirits of Quint and Jessel have come back to possess the children and continue their relationship. That evening Miss Giddens is awakened by a disturbing dream. She finds Flora standing at the bedroom window, gazing down at Miles who is strolling through the garden. Miss Giddens hurries downstairs and ushers Miles to his room. But once alone with him, Miles provocatively takes Miss Giddens’ face in his hands and kisses her on the lips as an impassioned suitor might.
Preferring to set aside the incident, Miss Giddens takes the children to the lake for an outing the next day. Flora demands to row a tiny boat, but Miles insists she is not strong enough and takes the ores himself instead, leaving the shore without her. Flora responds by taking her toy boat to the waters to play. As Miss Giddens gaze shifts beyond Flora she suddenly sees a gaunt and mysterious woman, soaked through to the bone in her clothes, her hair matted, jealously staring back at them with sunken eyes from the marshes on the opposite bank. Convinced these apparitions will vanish if the children admit to seeing them, Miss Giddens demands Flora acknowledge Miss Jessel’s ghost.
Instead, Flora begins to cry, calling Miss Giddens wicked and insane. Hours later, her hysteria remains unabated. Fearing for her soul, Miss Giddens orders Mrs. Grose to take Flora and leave Bly at once. She will remain behind with Miles and make him confess to seeing Quint. But the truth is hardly forthcoming. Miles is coy and evasive, even as Miss Giddens continues to press him on the facts surrounding his expulsion from school. Refusing to surrender her quest for the truth, Miss Giddens eventually gets Miles to recall the specter of Peter Quint, his smirking visage appearing in a reflection through the steamy window behind Miles. Miles runs off. But Miss Giddens pursues him, telling Miles he must admit to seeing Quint if the spell that haunts Bly is to be forever broken. Instead Quint reappears in the garden, raising his hand against the child who goes limp in Miss Giddens’ arms. Cradling Miles, and believing the curse has ended, Miss Giddens suddenly realizes the child is quite dead. Trembling with fear, she leans in and kisses Miles on his cold unresponsive lips.
The Innocents is as perversely troubling a tale of terror as has ever been put on the screen. The film’s strength is its uncanny ability to elicit sheer fright largely from nothing more than the spirit of our own collective imaginations, cleverly tweaked to maximize our dread. Deborah Kerr is magnificent as the cloistered, socially/sexually repressed governess who finds a strange burgeoning liberation in her equally unsettling and odd relationship with Flora - and particularly - Miles. Jack Clayton’s direction gets startlingly good performances from the entire cast; especially young Martin Stephens, who does indeed seem to be imbued with the devilish spirit of a wanton womanizer at least twice his natural age. There is something so freakishly unnerving and diabolically disconcerting, yet eerily real and natural about Stephen’s portrayal, one can only assume he was heavily coached into it even if there remains a hauntingly unrehearsed quality about it.
On the surface, at least, The Innocents carries the appeal of the traditional ‘dark old house’ thriller. But Clayton has astutely reassessed this warhorse subgenre, recognizing what is never seen or adequately explained is far more disturbing than anything the audience could ever be shown. Freddie Francis’ camerawork elevates Miss Giddens’ paranoia into a theater of our collective darkest fears. This paralyzes reason, even as it stirs Miss Giddens from her complacency into action to protect ‘the innocence’ of her young wards. Francis fills his anamorphic compositions with a stunning array of moldering shrubbery and dilapidated statuary, heightening the gothic malaise of these restless undead who continue to plague and corrupt the living with their unfinished and unfathomably aberrant sexual desires. In the final analysis, The Innocents is an adult horror classic, richly disturbing and psychologically complex.
Criterion Home Video’s newly remastered Blu-ray does the film a long overdue justice. Previous incarnations of The Innocents on home video have all been moderately appealing at best. But Criterion’s is the first to effectively capture the sumptuousness of Freddie Francis’ deep focus cinematography; also, to correct the noticeable horizontal stretching of the image – affectionately known as ‘the Cinemascope mumps’. We get none of that here, but a razor-sharp, slightly darker, and infinitely more film-like presentation that is overall a winner. Gray scale tonality is much improved as is film grain, looking natural and consistent throughout. The PCM mono audio is fairly flat, presumably in keeping with the original release, although George Auric’s sparse score does sound considerably more robust this time around.
Extras are a mixed bag. Criterion has received permission to regurgitate the old intro and audio commentary released on BFI’s U.K. Blu-ray release. Frayling’s astute observations remain the highlight of Criterion’s disc too, the only other extras being a new interview with cinematographer, John Bailey, and ‘making of’ featurette with interviews recorded in 2006 of Francis, editor Jim Clark, and script supervisor, Pamela Mann Francis. Each runs less than twenty minutes - much too short to be considered comprehensive. We also get a trailer and a fairly comprehensive essay by critic, Maitland McDonagh. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)