The Innocents Not an Innocent Old Film
By Kristin Battestella
So my honey and I are having weekend horror movie marathons leading up to Halloween. Alone at 2 a.m., I discovered The Innocents on television. I’m not a Deborah Kerr fan, but I put The King And I aside for this scary 1961 adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
Shocker of shockers, Kerr stars as young Miss Giddens, the new governess to a boy named Miles (Martin Stephens) and his sister Flora (Pamela Franklin). Their Uncle (Michael Redgrave) is always away on business and Miss Giddens is left in charge of the massive family estate, the children, and several servants. Stalwart maid Mrs. Grose (Meg Jenkins) is tight lipped about the previous butler Quint (Peter Wyngarde) but his iron fist is still felt in the household. Soon Miles acts out, and Miss Giddens sees Quint and the previous young governess Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) about the estate-though both died mysteriously the year before.
Kerr’s stuck up British Lady roles in films like The Grass is Greener and An Affair To Remember have always put me off, but here Kerr turns the persona into a voice of reason for her down spiraling charges-or so it seems. They say never act with children or dogs, but the pint size actors in The Innocents do well. Director Jack Clayton’s production is thoroughly British, and the children’s accents are very strong. The language twists, however, helps the atmosphere. People often find accents attractive, so when Quint finally appears to Kerr and the audience, we already know something about him; Strict, formal, yet rugged and alluring; the perfect mix of naughty and nice for a butler who is abusive in life and death.
I’ve been very tempted to read The Turn of the Screw since viewing The Innocents again. I love two other adaptations, 1994’s The Turn of The Screw starring Julian Sands and Patsy Kensit, and but of course, Dark Shadows introduced Quentin Collins as their spin on the possessive ghost Quint. As Quentin terrorized on Dark Shadows, Quint haunts and slowly takes over the children. The Innocents is black and white, so Clayton makes the most of every shadow and lighting trick in the book for Quint’s creeps. Fading light and darkness, blurry imagery, entire sequences of Kerr in the dark or only with a candle add to the spooks and gothic drama. Today’s films are so jammed packed with special effects, but sometimes being unable to see is best. Hearing what you can not see, the disorientation it creates; in the darkest scenes, Clayton turns up the ghost sounds, laughter, and storms. We’re as confused as Miss Giddens. You can’t see, but you know, or rather, you speculate with your own fear. This makes The Innocents down right creepy.
It may jar modern folks, but The Innocents uses the old fashioned extreme close up shot for another spooky layer. Instead of giving us some smoke and mirrors or jumpy photography, the camera is on Kerr, Quint, or the kids. The infinite possibilities and expressions of the human face far out way any sill effect that would not stand the test of time. When a person watches another person in fear, pain, or anguish, we can’t help but be drawn in-hooked and wanting to help. Likewise we recoil at Quint’s evil and edgy face. Still close ups of Kerr listening to the wind, her hair blowing ever so lightly-it’s all the ghostly hints one needs.
Good old time horror fans no doubt already enjoy The Innocents, but I recommend it for all classic buffs. Fans of other slightly kinky gothic films like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights will enjoy The Innocents. Victorian era fans will love the styling, too- even though you can see Kerr and those big hoop skirts in color elsewhere. If you can get them to sit still for a black and white picture, even kids might like The Innocents. There’s nothing overtly scary, sexual, or offensive for today’s wise tweens. And hey, they might learn a lesson about what happens to seemingly bad kids!
One point of concern for The Innocents is the ending. I don’t get it. Kerr and Martin Stephen’s performances are fine, but the film ends very abruptly. Intelligent audiences may be confused or enjoy the questions raised. The book of course, offers plenty of ambiguity as well. I won’t spoil anything by sharing my thoughts, oh no. Still, I would have liked five more minutes of resolution instead of a potentially unsatisfactory conclusion, but The Innocents is worth the view for spook fans. Indeed, multiple viewings to enjoy the subtleties are in order. Sure you may chuckle at a few old fashioned or Brit things, but once you’re into the film, you’re hooked. Look for The Innocents on dvd or catch a sample on television this Halloween.