The Innocents – UK, 1961
Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is one of those films in which a perfectly normal person becomes rather extraordinary practically overnight. For examples of this kind of character, think Keanu Reeves in Chain Reaction, Samuel L. Jackson in The Caveman’s Valentine, or Gilles Lellouche in 2010’s Point Break. I mean, who knew that computer specialists, homeless musicians, or male nurses could become action heroes and skilled detectives that quickly? Films that include such characters are taking a chance that their audience will accept the sudden changes and the elevated skills, and while average moviegoers seem to be rather accepting, movie reviewers often take a different view. To them, the average Joe cannot suddenly solve a crime without there being something in that character’s past that explains his or her new investigative skills. Without that, the eyes of reviewers are likely to roll for the remainder of the film.
In The Innocents, the character that elicited such a response from me was Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr). Toward the beginning of the film, this character interviews for a job as the governess of two orphans. She has never been a governess before, and her sole qualification for the job seems to be her professed love for children in general – not exactly the best reason to work with children. The man interviewing her is the children’s uncle (Michael Redgrave), and his most intriguing requirement of his potential employee is that she leave him alone completely. “Whatever happens,” he tells her, “you must handle it alone.” It is an odd requirement, and it raises a lot of questions. Is there more to this than just indifference? Does the uncle know more than he is letting on? Miss Gibbons takes the job, of course, and is soon being driven by carriage to a castle-like estate built on top of a hill overlooking a small forest and a large clean pond. Cut off from the rest of the world, it appears to be its own self-sustaining world, similar to the hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining.
Strange things begin happening immediately. An eerie voice is heard near the pond. Wandering spirits are spoken of. Strange predictions are made and then come true. A young boy exhibits behaviors and mannerisms much more common among adults, and ever so often a creepy tune about weeping willows is hummed or sung or played on the piano. One day, during an innocent game of Hide and Seek, Miss Giddens sees a ghostly figure outside and begins to suspect that the house is haunted. It is at this point in the film that she begins to resemble a detective. She questions the staff about past dramatic events that occurred at the estate, rummages through unused rooms for clues, and begins to form a rather terrifying theory. Audience members will either buy this aspect of the film, or they won’t. I, for one, did not.
As the film progresses and Miss Giddens’s deductive-reasoning skills improve, the film descends a bit into horror film silliness. There are haunted house audio effects that have long since lost their ability to scare or unnerve, and dialogue from earlier in the film reverberates through the house – odd, but certainly not terrifying. At one point, Miss Giddens mentions seeking help from the local vicar because as she explains it, “He’s perhaps the only one who can [help].” The comment makes complete sense. The only problem is that she never seeks his help. In the very next scene, she reveals her plans to confront the evil head on and get the children to admit its presence. Who knew that was all it took?
Of course, there is more than one interpretation of the film. We watch events through the eyes of Miss Giddens, and therefore it is possible that everything that she suspects or “sees” is the result of the active imagination that she references in the beginning of the film. This interpretation is certainly plausible, yet it lacks complete credibility. First, Kerr’s performance does not make one suspect that Giddens is a psychopath. Instead, Giddens comes across as a sensible, kindhearted woman who just happens to begin seeing ghosts, much like the lead characters in most films of this sort. There is also little that explains just what would trigger Giddens’s initial delusion or that explains why a character like Ms. Grose wouldn’t be much more alarmed by Giddens’s theories than she is. If none of what we or Miss Giddens sees is real, wouldn’t Ms. Grose be the one running to the vicar for help? However, the “it’s all in her head” interpretation does somewhat explain the film’s emotional prelude, in which we hear Miss Giddens’s sobs and what sounds like an admission of fault. From viewer comments online, it appears that people are split as to which interpretation they believe.
To me, The Innocents is a film of two halves. The first half is tight and suspenseful. The second half is less effective, yet still interesting. Throughout the entire film, the cast gives impressive performances, in particular, Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens as the troubled children, Flora and Miles. In fact, if ever a child deserved a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, it was Stephens, who was eleven when the film was completed. There are moments in which his delivery resembles that of a man in his thirties, and Kerr’s stunned reactions to them are more than warranted. The film preceded The Exorcist by twelve years, and its influence on the horror film genre is apparent, helping to expand it from the world of werewolves, creatures from the deep, and man-made monsters. The evil could now be human or a remnant of the deceased, and the afflicted could now be our most precious assets, our children. In addition, the camera could be used to keep the truth from us, a technique that has been used countless times since. While the film has not held up as well as other early horror films have, it remains a chilling film that many fans of the genre will no doubt appreciate. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars