The Innocents

Dir: Jack Clayton, 1961. Starring: Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins. Horror.
The Innocents

Were you to ask me to recommend you a good horror film at Amoeba I would invariably direct you to the Val Lewton section and I would try explaining why the films that he did for RKO in the 1940s are some of the most astonishingly sophisticated and genuinely haunting movies ever made. The reason I would rely on Lewton’s films for a good horror recommendation is twofold—they’re really that good and I haven’t seen that many horror films because I think a lot of them look really gross. Psychological thrillers are the tops but when a film involves the removal of intestines and the liquefying of brain matter - and worse when it takes place in the 1970s (I hate those even more for some reason, I think because of all the excess body hair) - I know that a film is not for me. Suffice to say the oeuvre of Rob Zombie is pretty much off my radar. I can’t help it! But sometimes I come across a horror film with real emotional depth and a captivating escalation of dread and tension and I remember how excellent a horror film can be if it meets my weird aesthetic criteria. The Innocents is the kind of film I’m talking about. It’s one of the most unsettling films ever made. The horror is there but it exists in such an ambiguous, queasy realm of anxiety and when it’s over you will question what you really saw, but you will not stop thinking about the film for a long time.

The Innocents is an adaptation of Henry James’s novel, The Turn of the Screw, though apparently the movie adheres closer to the play that was spun off of the book (also called The Innocents). It’s interesting to note that Harold Pinter was one of the authors who worked on the screenplay. It’s an English gothic horror story set at a country estate, but while the repressive atmosphere of a Victorian setting is ever present the shades of nuance in the psychology of the film is startling even for the early 1960s. It’s hard to imagine the same film being made in the United States. Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a governess hired to look after the orphaned niece and nephew of a London playboy who has no intention of living with them in the country. She is our guide as we descend into a very weird state of affairs at the house.

It seems that tragic events haunt the property where the children reside. The former governess committed suicide after her sadistic lover, also an employee of the estate, died mysteriously. This had a traumatic effect on Miles and Flora, the children who live there. As Miss Giddens pieces together the story of what happened she grows more hysterical in her worry for the children, becoming convinced they could be possessed by the spirits of the recently deceased. What she hears about the relationships between Miles, Flora, and the former employees is suggestive of something truly dark and, though we never know for certain what happened, it’s impossible not to empathize with Miss Giddens, who is falling apart trying to understand just what dark secrets and supernatural forces are at play with "the innocents."

The actors (especially the kid who plays Miles), the cinematography, and the pacing all work marvelously together. The ending of the film leads to more questions and, in a sense, it’s beside the point. Like Lewton’s films, The Innocents is a prime example that real horror comes from the unknown. Whatever is going on, be it a lonely governess losing her mind or the terrifying aftermath that accompanies the corruption of two children, it is a frightening experience not easily shook off.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jul 23, 2010 5:36pm
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