Happy Halloween, everyone! For my classic horror film pick this year, I caught up with director Jack Clayton’s pseudo-adaptation of the Henry James story The Turn of the Screw (one of my favorites). The film may rob the story of some of the wonderful ambiguity in the novel, but as a classic horror picture it is still executed quite well.
The story opens with Miss Giddons (Deborah Kerr) getting hired as a governess for a mysterious rich man’s (Michael Redgrave) young nephew Miles (Martin Stephens) and niece Flora (Pamela Franklin). He instructs Miss Giddons to never trouble him about the children, and tells her that the previous governess, Miss Jessel, has mysteriously passed away. She sets off to his country estate to care for the children, who at first appear to be very sweet, intelligent, and well-behaved. However, Miss Giddons soon becomes aware of suspicious and ghostly figures lurking around the house and the grounds, and can’t figure out whether or not the children also have knowledge of them. Soon, she becomes convinced that the spirits of Miss Jessel and the former (also deceased) valet, Peter Quint, are dead set on possessing the souls of the children.
Of main interest in the novel is whether or not the “ghosts” of Miss Jessel and Quint are really there, or just figments of the governess’s imagination, wrought out of insecurity, isolation, and sexual repression. The dialogue manages to be just creepy enough to put us off, but not explicit enough for us to know if something is wrong. The movie largely continues this trend, but not quite to the same degree as the book does. I haven’t read it in a while and book to film comparisons are annoying from a filmmaking standpoint anyway, but I really wish that certain lines weren’t here in the movie. Just being slightly less on the nose with Miss Giddons dialogue would have been great (also, why does she need a name?).
One thing the film does offer as an addition/improvement on the book is its use of music. It might seem like a creepy kid stereotype to wander around the house singing a creepy song about death accompanied by a broken music box, but it’s a stereotype for a reason and that’s because it works. The song that Flora sings is in fact still in my head as I type these words; it’s that effective. There is also a stunning sequence where Miles, adorned with a cape, crown, and flickering candle, recites a poem about a lord coming back from the grave. It’s a breathtakingly chilling sequence. The success of the film largely depends on the performances of the these two children, and they are both fantastic. They command the screen as few child actors can.
I also greatly appreciated the environment created in the film. It’s strangely rooted in nature, which makes sense as like the supernatural threat in the film, it is outside man’s control. Many scenes take place in the garden, and the overwhelming sound of buzzing insects fills the soundtrack as overgrown vegetation threatens to engulf the frame. There are also several statues outside that lurk ominously, either in the open or behind grass or trees. Inside the house are creepy shadows, but I must admit the outside portions were more compelling for their novelty.
The film does admirably still include the weird sexual undertones of the novel, which I must admit thought were going to be toned down for 1961 audiences. Deborah Kerr is strangely cast as she’s almost 40 at this point, while her character is supposed to be closer to 20. However, she still does a good job wavering between strangely neurotic and completely normal, as do the children. Their performances all mesh together quite well, and the strange word choice and line deliveries contribute to the sexual undercurrent I referenced above.
The Innocents is not a perfect movie, but it is a really good one. I must admit, besides the awful 1974 The Great Gatsby, I’ve been really impressed by Jack Clayton’s films so far, along with his collaborations with DP Freddie Francis (who also worked with him on Room at the Top, which I reviewed earlier this year). Like that film, he uses a lot of deep focus in that old timey way of having one character’s face unsettlingly close to the camera and the other actor lurking in the background. I wish filmmakers still did that, I really like the look it creates visually and it’s disturbing without being too disturbing. Anyway, though The Innocents somehow doesn’t create a full experience that matches the original source material, there are several sequences in it that are truly striking and unforgettable. Well worth a watch for sure, and what’s better than a creepy kid movie on Halloween?
“But above anything else, I love the children.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
For Further Reading: