The Innocents (1961)
The Innocents, along with The Haunting (1963), is one of those movies I worry about returning to for fear it will not inspire in me the same wonderful feeling of looming terror I got from first viewing. I'm glad to say it holds up.
For a horror flick, The Innocents is pretty languid. It is an adaptation of the Broadway play of the same name by William Archibald, which is turn was an adaptation of Henry James's short novel, The Turn of The Screw. Truman Capote reworked much of the play into the screenplay for the film, which may explain its Gothic slowness. Set in an English country estate in the late 19th century, the story is of a novice governess whose first assignment is to care for -- almost wholly unsupervised -- the young niece and nephew of a London playboy (Michael Redgrave), who makes it charmingly clear that he is not interested in country family life. He hires Miss Giddens, not because she is especially (or demonstrably qualified) but because she agrees not to pester him with details or responsibilities, or bring up the last governess's death to young Flora; they were very close. Now, off you go.
Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, the nervous, inexperienced governess. There is an anxiety about Miss Giddens that doesn't quite let up. Maybe it's just nerves about working for the first time and so very far from home. Maybe it's something else. When she meets little Flora (the luminous Pamela Franklin) in the garden of the gorgeous estate playing with her turtle, Rupert, Giddens is completely won over. The house is large and lovely; the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), is friendly and helpful; the boy, Miles (British scary kid staple, Martin Stephens), is away at school and will be home for the holidays.
So far so good.
Except Flora keeps saying the Miles will be coming home soon (it's nowhere near the holidays). And it thunders a lot. And those gorgeous white roses keep shedding their petals no matter how freshly they've been cut. And Miss Giddens can't seem to get a good night's sleep, what with the dreams and all. And who was that man standing in the dovecote high in the tower?
Turns out Flora had correctly predicted Miles's imminent return, because he is on is way home after having been expelled from his boarding school for being a "corrupting influence." Miss Giddens can't imagine why, because he is such a lovely, agreeable boy, who very much loves his sister.
Meanwhile, Miss Giddens is beginning to find Flora's continual humming of a sad song and her frequent wandering off to the lake to be troubling. One day, Miss Giddens sees a dark-eyed figure of a woman standing in the distant reeds by the lake. She hounds Mrs. Grose for more information about Miss Jessel, the children's last governess. Turns out the former (dead) governess had developed a tragic attachment to the uncle's former (also dead) valet, Peter Quint (played in light and shadow by Peter Wyngarde). After Quint met his end by slipping on some ice after a drunken night out, Miss Jessel (played at a terrifying distance by Clytie Jessop), went mad and drowned herself in the lake. Quint had been cruel to everyone, especially Miss Jessel, but young Miles doted on him.
With Miles back at home, the children start to act strangely, whispering to one another, and playing benign if slightly off-putting tricks on poor Miss Giddens, who keeps seeing Quint and Miss Jessel all over the place. Miss Giddens is convinced that their spirits are possessing the children and making them behave unnaturally close (if you know what I mean). She, in turn, behaves suspiciously toward the children all the time now and comes to believe that the youngsters can only be saved if they confess to being possessed.* Poor Mrs. Grose doesn't know what to think.
It doesn't end well. Let's just say that young Pamela Franklin was a convincing little screamer.
We are never quite sure whether Miss Giddens is going mad or if the spirits are indeed haunting the children. The film is replete with psycho-sexual undertones, but are they other-worldly in origin or the imaginings of a woman who is slowly unraveling? The director, Jack Clayton, leaves it deliberately ambiguous.
The Innocents can feel a bit plodding and overwrought at times, but the cinematography is so breathtaking, and the haunting so uncertain, that you couldn't spend a more compelling, creepier hour and a half. Best of all, it can be watched for free on YouTube (in one go with Portuguese subtitles, or in pieces without), and does not suffer at all from a small screen viewing.
* They don't.
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