The great actress Deborah Kerr passed away last Thursday, and among her credits is my favorite horror movie of all time, The Innocents (1961). This is one of many screen adaptations of the Henry James late 19th century novella “The Turn of the Screw,” and it is not only the best of these adaptations, but it also may be one of the best screen adaptations ever done.
It is for this faithfulness to the original source that the film ranks at the top of my list. The James story is an exercise in ambiguity and unreliable narration. The narrator (after a frame story that sets up the main tale) is a newly hired governess charged with the care of young Miles and Flora, two orphans left in the charge of their uncle, who has no time in his busy social schedule to devote to their upbringing. At first, the governess is only taking care of Flora, but a letter from Miles’s school informs her that the young master will be returning home for undisclosed reasons.
The governess discovers that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, had met an untimely end along with her lover, another servant at the house named Quint, and the couple had some mysterious influence on the two children. With so much mystery surrounding the children’s past, the governess believes that the children are being haunted by Jessel and Quint. The novella navigates its ambiguity masterfully, as the reader can just as easily conclude that the ghosts are either real or figments of the governess’s imagination.
The movie’s genius lies in the fact that it manages to duplicate this ambiguity, which is much more difficult to do in film, with its objective camera eye, than in prose, with its expansive possibilities for playing with point of view (not that films can’t play with point of view, but there are greater limitations on film and also certainly far fewer examples of films that do so as novels).
Some elements that are only hinted at in the novella are given more attention in the film, however, often to devious ends in the screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote. We never find out exactly why Miles was kicked out of his school, but we do learn that he used some language with the other boys that was not appropriate, and there is a hint that he may have been violent. Whatever language he used, he apparently learned from Quint, and the extent of Quint’s influence on the lad is also left unrevealed. All this ambiguity requires the viewer to fill in the gaps with his or her own imagination, and this makes this even more disturbing.
Miles is played with precocious creepiness by Martin Stephens, who used the same skills in the original Village of the Damned (1960). When Miles and the governess first meet, Miles tells her, “You are far too pretty to be a governess,” and this sets the tone for this relationship, which Archibald and Capote’s screenplay pushes to surprising psychosexual limits. Whenever Miles refers to the governess as “my dear,” it’s simply chilling. Miles could be an undisciplined prankster playing at maturity because he and his sister have been left to their own devices for some time, or he could be an evil man-child unduly influenced by the nefarious Mr. Quint. (There is a scene in the middle of the film, where Miles recites a poem about a dead lord while wearing a crown and carrying a candle, that is as creepy and effective as any scene in any horror film).
This raises yet another reason why this film ranks so high for me—it so refuses to romanticize childhood. So many American movies treat children as either miniature adults or pure innocents, whereas this film shows them in a manner closer to the truth: kids can be meanspirited, sadistic jerks who are entirely capable of tearing each other and their elders down.
But when I think of my favorite scary movies, most involve children to some degree: Night of the Hunter, The Exorcist, Village of the Damned, The Bad Seed, etc. These movies don’t all treat childhood in the same way, but there is something primal about using children as either the victims or perpetrators of horror.
Much is often said about how horror films of the past were more effective than those of the present because older films left much more up to the viewer’s imagination, and The Innocents is certainly a great example of that. But this movie also guides the viewer’s imagination into directions that are truly shocking.
The direction by Jack Clayton and black and white cinematography by Freddie Francis (who was not only one of the great cinematographers of all time, but also an accomplished horror movie director for Hammer Studios) is also responsible for manipulating the viewer’s imagination, moving from sharp realism to surreal imagery whenever the governess’s imagination is in overdrive (or whenever she’s in the presence of the supernatural—whichever interpretation you choose). As everything breaks down in the film’s final moments, the camera whips around the setting in a breathless frenzy. Kerr’s performance is also stellar, as stress builds and more and more evidence contributes to her belief in the ghosts and her desire to protect the children at all costs.
Few horror films have attempted to duplicate this film in terms of style and subtlety. One exception is Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others, a film that owes a lot to The Innocents. In an upcoming post, I’ll be covering a companion film, of sorts, to The Innocents that goes wrong in pretty much every way possible.
In the meantime, here’s Joe Dante’s commentary on the ill-conceived trailer for The Innocents—a trailer that seems more appropriate for an AIP film than this one.