Innocent?

The search for new old, classic horror/thriller films has already paid off this week. After a so-so experience with Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People, the freaky meter jumped up a notch with The Innocents, a film I can’t believe I haven’t seen until now. Definitely check this one out.

In what is sure to go down as the one of the worst cinematic relatives ever, a London businessman (Michael Redgrave) hires a governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) for his niece Flora (Pamela Franklin) and nephew Miles (Martin Stephens), who are living on his country estate. When he hires Miss Giddens to take over child-rearing duties, he orders her to handle everything and to not bother him with a single detail. Nothing says love like, “I don’t want to hear about it.” The children’s previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), has died, and when Miss Giddens arrives at the estate, she realizes that it holds grotesque, bizarre secrets involving her predecessor and valet Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde). She also begins to suspect that things aren’t quite right with the children. In fact, she starts to think that they are possessed by the spirits of Miss Jessel and Quint, who continue their disturbed relationship through Flora and Miles.

Produced in 1961, it didn’t have to be shot in black and white, but the film is stronger for it (apparently director Jack Clayton wanted it to stand out from its horror film contemporaries emerging from Hammer Studios). Freddie Francis‘ cinematography is one of the real highlights of the film, with a strong emphasis on light vs. dark and the play of shadows. These elements heighten both narrative possibilities, that spirits are actually haunting the estate or Miss Giddens is simply going crazy. Either way, the cinematography provides some truly chilling scenes and shots.  While some viewers have complained about overacting, the three leads, Kerr, Franklin, and Stephens all do, I think, a masterful job of walking that fine line between sanity, insanity, and just the downright bizarre. Franklin and Stephens are almost as creepy a pair of horror film kids as you’re likely to find. Attention to detail in the set design emphasize the demonic and disturbing themes in almost every shot.

PERHAPS THE SPOOKIEST SCENE IN THE FILM:

Another strength of the film is its fidelity to the ambiguity of the story on which it is based, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (Truman Capote contributed dialogue to the script as well). Throughout the film, we’re not quite sure who or what to believe. Are the children actually possessed or are they simply playing pranks on Miss Giddens? Is Miss Giddens simply overprotective and paranoid and thus drive herself (and eventually the children) insane? The film never explicitly answers these questions and it leaves us with an ending that recalls the creepy Nicole Kidman child possession film, Birth (2004).

A couple of scenes between Miss Giddens and Miles might be off-putting, but they add to the creepiness of the film, which deals with some intense, darker psychological subject matter along with possession, including a potential S & M relationship between Miss Jessel and Quint that the children apparently witness. As Miss Giddens delves further into the history of the estate, she also probes deeper into her charges’ psyches. When Flora finally breaks, she goes into fits that would have made Linda Blair proud. Miles is no slouch either, as he, or possibly as a conduit for Quint, manipulates the events that unfold.

The only thing scarier than the ghost is the kid Miles.

There’s only surface attention to religion here. The film opens on Miss Giddens fervently praying that all she wants to do is take care of the children. This flash-forward scene sets the tone of impending doom under which the rest of the film operates. If you’re a fan of films that set and maintain an eerie tone and are judicious with their chill-inducing moments, this is the perfect film for your Halloween viewing pleasure. Hey, if it’s good enough for Martin Scorsese, it should be good enough for you. In the end, I’m sure you’ll be left asking whether or not, to borrow housekeeper Miss Grose’s (Megs Jenkins) advice, Miss Giddens should have let the dreaming children be.

The Innocents (99 mins.) is, I believe, available for Instant Viewing on Netflix.

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About J. Ryan Parker

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