Halloween Horror Movie Marathon: ‘The Innocents’

The InnocentsThe Innocents (1961) Directed by Jack Clayton. Starring Deborah Kerr, Megs Jenkins, Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephens, Michael Redgrave, Peter Wyngarde, Clytie Jessop.

The Innocents is listed in that book I mentioned in my last post. I also seem to recall it appearing in some ‘best of horror’ lists, including Scorsese’s. Well, seemed like it was time to give it look. Considering my reaction to the number one pick on his list, The Haunting, I went into it with lowered expectations but found myself pleasantly surprised by this tremendously effective ghost story.

In the days prior to watching The Innocents, I attempted to read the short novel upon which it is based, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. That was a poor idea. James does not give himself over to quick reading. If you attempt a casual reading you’ll find yourself tripping over a parade of commas.

Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) takes on a job as a governess at an enormous estate called Bly. At first the children seem perfect but Miss Giddens begins to suspect the children are hiding something from her that might be related to the frightening apparitions she’s started hearing. Why exactly was Miles expelled from his school? What are the children whispering about?

I could rewatch The Innocents for its lovely black and white cinematography alone. The deep focus allows for some fascinating compositions. If at times the camera movement and framing seemed too deliberate, I was too busy enjoying the visuals to care. There is little to nothing in the way of special effects. As far as I could tell the ghostly apparitions were shot normally without even a cheesy super-imposed image in sight. But these sequences are so well done that they are no less haunting. I would have loved to have seen this in a theater, if only for the opening credit sequence alone. The film begins with nearly a minute of blackness as a child sings an eerie little tune that continues over the familiar 20th Century Fox logo. The song ends and we hear chirping birds before the musical score begins and the credits appear. And then, in what must be striking on the big screen, Deborah Kerr’s praying hands fill part of the screen as we listen to her choking back sobs. I don’t know, it probably loses something in the description but I found it compelling.

This next part may be spoilerish but if you’re familiar enough with the genre you might already start the movie asking yourself, is what the governess seeing actually there or is it simply a part of her deteriorating mind? Not long after you’ve begun wondering yourself the characters in the film begin wondering as well. For me that can be the death of a ghost story but in this case it didn’t matter. Even if the ghosts are a fragment of Miss Giddens’s imagination, the reality of what has happened, though only hinted at, is so tragic that it is no less horrifying.

All of this combined made it, for me, a far more effective haunted house story than The Haunting. If you’re in the mood for an eerie black and white ghost story from the early ’60s, The Innocents is my pick.

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One Response to “Halloween Horror Movie Marathon: ‘The Innocents’”

  1. Michael K Vaughan Says:

    I remember, years ago, seeing this film. Hard, I think, to judge it now. And yet, it seems, I need not, for you, Justin, have done the job well. To tell it true, scared I never was, though despite this, ideed, it was still a good film. Sad that I could not, this year, watch it with you, Justin. Perhaps, fate willing, next year.

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