Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is still easily the greatest ghost story in cinema history.
This stylised interpretation of the Henry James scare fable, ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ is a perfect fusion of performance, script and cinematic craft.
The story revolves around neurotic governess Miss Giddens, played to the hilt by Deborah Kerr. Giddens is hired to bring up precocious, orphaned delinquents Miles and Flora at their suitably strange country manor. She soon becomes convinced that evil spirits occupy the grounds of the house that intend to possess the souls of the helpless, innocent children.
Giddens begins to be troubled by apparent visions of deceased pair Quint and former governess Miss Jessel, two darkly tormented lovers who exercised a powerful influence over the children when alive and may continue to do so from the grave.
The introduction is superb, beginning simply with a blank screen and the sound of a haunting and lilting music box lullaby. As the darkness lifts, the quivering hands of the governess become visible and are clasped in frantic prayer. Despite the uneasiness of this striking first image, you immediately know that this is going to be a quality viewing experience.
The narrative then steps back to the moment when Miss Giddens is hired. The highlight of this scene is the performance of Michael Redgrave as the Uncle of Miles and Flora. He has a ruthlessly cavalier attitude towards life and responsibility, devilishly encapsulated by his unflinching assessment of his feelings towards Miles and Flora: “For I have no room for them. Neither mentally nor emotionally.”
The sharply written script by William Archibald, John Mortimer and Truman Capote is excellent. There is an almost mischievous rhythm and pitch to the prose. The delivery of the dialogue is perfectly enunciated and exact. As a result, each of the characters sounds on the verge of frenzy at any moment.
Kerr is magnificent in the central role. Her performance is full of perfectly realised mannerisms and twitchy neuroses. The wild expressions and teary eyes exactly reveal the intense devotion to children of the governess, a devotion bordering on outright mania. Kerr keeps alive the idea that Miss Giddens herself might be the one you should really be afraid of.
The ambiguity that is maintained throughout the 96 minute running time is one of the most unsettling and yet, strangely endearing qualities of The Innocents. As the governess begins to be troubled by ghostly visions and apparitions, it’s hard to escape the idea that the fear may exist only in her own repressed and deeply warped mind.
The power of suggestion is immense and is carried out beautifully by the way the so-called ‘ghosts’ appear. The spectral sight of Miss Jessel is always just far enough removed from sight to make you believe Miss Giddens is seeing things and slowly losing her senses. The first glimpse of Quint is a shadowy figure adorning a misty rooftop. It is so slight you’re not quite sure yourself that you’ve seen anything at all.
Five decades on, the cinematography puts to shame CGI, 3D and whatever the next fad will be.
It is this fear of uncertainty which drives The Innocents. You can never settle comfortably on one interpretation for long. Just when you think you’ve successfully determined that it is the fear of the governess that creates these images, a fresh vision sends you spiralling back into nervous doubt and uncertainty.
In a brilliantly executed sequence Giddens enters an old, abandon classroom and spies the macabre sight of Miss Jessel cowering at a lonely desk, sobbing. The vision scurries away and again disappears from view. Upon approaching the now abandoned desk, the governess is shocked to discover a fresh and very real tear next to the ink blotter. In the midst of so many almost comforting false dawns, here is tangible, living proof of the existence of the demonic spirits previously hinted at. Or is it? Is that what you saw? Or is it merely what the Governess made herself and the viewer see? Suddenly the fear becomes very real.
Trapped at the centre of all of this paranoid hysteria and supernatural suggestion are the delightfully disturbed children, whose casting is superb. The initially angelic faces which greet Miss Giddens both contain something that is ever so slightly off. The faces look more like masks, templates of forced civility. There is always the hint of something truly terrifying behind their facade of infantile serenity.
This is particularly evident in Miles, played magnificently by Martin Stephens. So often a great film can be undone by the annoying performance of a child, but there is no such danger here. Stephens makes Miles appear at once amiable and sinister. He exudes a coiled malevolence, anxious to seize control and spew forth its terrible bile.
The work of cinematographer Freddie Francis and sound recordist Buster Ambler wonderfully enhances the note perfect dialogue and performances. The photography is black and white, ‘CinemaScope’ at its most crisp and attractive. For want of a better phrase, the film simply looks as though it has been poured onto the screen. Five decades on, the cinematography puts to shame CGI, 3D and whatever the next fad will be. The clear sound of crickets and creaking floorboards become as big a protagonist as the main players.
In the end, the sinister joy of The Innocents comes from how it attacks the mind, never allowing you to feel like you know where the true horror lies. If you are looking for a classic horror to avoid the easy shocks of a gore fest or the overdone theme of the Vampire then opt instead for this beautifully realised and understated classic.
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