There’s nothing schlocky about this movie; it’s the opposite in fact, and on purpose. By the early 1960’s, Hammer Films had already established themselves as the only name in British horror, combining bright, vibrant blood effects with young women with heaving bosoms into Victorian costume drama. They became a brand unto themselves and that’s what most people thought British horror was. But Hammer certainly wasn’t the only game in town; some filmmakers were trying to make understated, dignified and incredibly spooky films that forsook the gore and the bodices and focused on troubling psychological torment and ghosts from the past. Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents is the anti-Hammer film, and one of the creepiest films ever made.
Based on Henry James’ short 1898 novel The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents contains a small cast but big atmosphere, with Cinemascope photography by the great Freddie Francis in order to give the huge Gothic manor house the sense that it’s engulfing everyone. It’s all about the damage that can be done to children by unsavory people who can continue to do the damage even after they’re gone. Repressed memories and maintaining polite society are things the Victorian world lived and died on and, in a sense, there are ghosts everywhere because of it. In the case of this movie, those ghosts are always just in the corner of the frame.
The movie centers on Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a young woman who is to become a governess, even though she’s never done it before. She meets with a very wealthy man (Michael Redgrave) who is the owner of a large manor estate and uncle to two young children. He hopes Miss Giddens works out because he wants nothing to do with the children or her again for the rest of their lives, presumably. He doesn’t want to take care of them, and really just wants to be left alone. The only reason he’s even having to meet someone now is that the previous governess, Miss Jessel, died. As we’ll soon find out, she died under tragic and sordid circumstances.
When she gets to the manor, called Bly, she meets the house’s maid, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), and the young girl, Flora (Pamela Franklin), who is to be in her care. Giddens finds Flora delightful and the two get along immediately. Flora’s older brother Miles (Martin Stephens) is reportedly a terror and is in fact sent home from boarding school, expelled, for some kind of bad behavior, though we know not what. Though he’s certainly a precocious boy, Giddens finds him just as delightful as Flora and the three soon have a lovely series of adventures. Miles acts much older than his years, and it’s apparent to the audience right away that something’s off about him, despite the governess’ belief that everything is fine.
However, Miss Giddens soon begins seeing the figure of a man around the house, but when she goes to investigate, there’s nothing there. She also sees, in the distance, a woman wearing black, but again no one else can see her. Eventually, Miss Giddens sees the man, through a window, and describes him to Mrs. Grose, who says “Why that’s Peter Quint, the master’s personal valet and caretaker of Bly…but he’s dead.” She learns that Quint was a brute who had a volatile sexual relationship with Miss Jessel, who took his beatings as a sign of love, and the children, especially Miles, worshipped the ground he walked on.
Slowly through the film, Miss Giddens attempts to put together the true story of what happened in the house and how Quint and Miss Jessel died, and perhaps free the children from whatever hold the dead parental figures still have over them, all while Miss Giddens is experiencing paranormal phenomena and seeing and hearing ghostly things which may or may not be only in her head. Is everyone lying to her or is she really the only one seeing them?
This film is just fantastic. It’s subtle and takes its time but the emotional and psychological ramifications, certainly by the end, hit home in a way few movies, horror or otherwise, can. While most ghost or haunted house movies of the time approached the subject through humor or jump moments, The Innocents allows the dread to creep in and weave throughout the proceedings, only making its presence known at moments of the most impact.
The bulk of the script was written by Truman Capote and, although the film is set in and bears much of the language of Victorian England, he infuses the script with a great deal of Southern Gothic sensibilities, and adds a great deal of troubling imagery, especially as Giddens begins to resemble Miss Jessel, and Miles begins to resemble Quint, and their relationship starts to head into especially icky areas. Freddie Francis’ cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and sumptuous in a way that only black & white photography could be, and he hazed and clouded the corners of the lens in order to put the whole film in a dreamlike state.
The Innocents is plainly one of the best British horror films ever made and a supremely haunting and upsetting experience. The title tells us that every one of the film’s four main characters is “innocent,” but that they might still do harm or come to harm is the real tragedy of the piece. The sins of the past can make everyone guilty.