Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
The goal of a film like The Innocents isn’t to make us sleep with the light on, but to occupy our thoughts at odd moments. It’s not to make us too scared to close our eyes, but to force our eyes open with thoughts that come unbidden and unwanted. The Innocents, and I include films like The Haunting and The Others in this same category, aim for that existential horror that keeps us staring at the ceiling. It doesn’t go for the gross out or the boo, but seeks to dig deep into our psyches, to question the reality that we experience.
There are a few aspects of The Innocents that work very much in favor for the goals that the film has for us. It helps that this is a period piece. There is something that adds to the creep factor when such events as the film presents can only be hinted at and when our lighting comes from candles instead of electric lights. That it’s black-and-white helps as well. This film would be much less filmed in color. Third, and we can’t discount this at all, is that much of the focus of the film is on actual innocents, a pair of young children. Finally, the film does not ever answer its central question: is what we are seeing reflective of reality or is it simply a manifestation of madness?
The Innocents is based on the short novel “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James. If you’re familiar with that story, this film will hold no real surprises for you, save how well that story is portrayed. If you don’t know the story, I’ll give you the quick and dirty. I don’t want to go into too much detail, though, because the story is good enough and the atmosphere created by this film is so well done that I don’t want to spoil it for the uninitiated.
Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is employed as a nanny at a country retreat called Bly. Her employer (Michael Redgrave) has more or less inherited a pair of young children but has no interest in them. Miss Giddens’s job will be to look after the children and, more or less, keep them out of the man’s hair, and in fact out of his notice at all. Miss Giddens agrees to take the job, and is initially enchanted by the large country house, the housekeeper Miss Grose (Megs Jenkins), and the young girl, Flora (Pamela Franklin).
Shortly after her arrival, a letter arrives concerning the other child, Miles (Martin Stephens, whose creepy potential is upped by being the main kid from The Village of the Damned). Miles has been expelled from his boarding school for being a bad influence on the other children. Things seem fine initially, until Miss Giddens starts noticing things around the house. Specifically, she notices people that she doesn’t think should be there. A few questions to Miss Grose and a little investigation on her own reveals some disturbing facts. The man and woman she seems to see here and there around the house are evidently the former governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) and the former valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde). That’s disturbing enough, and made more disturbing by the fact that both Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are dead.
As the film continues, Miss Giddens becomes more and more convinced that the two spirits are not merely there, but are attempting to possess the children, to control them and thus continue the relationship they had in life through the persons of the children.
That’s really it. There’s no major scare factor going on here. Instead, the film does everything through atmosphere, shadow, and camerawork. Smart use of lighting and deep focus keep the audience off center for the bulk of the running time. We’re not meant to be frightened of the film or the story so much as we are to be unnerved by it. Much of this comes from exactly how the story plays out. As mentioned above, by the time we get to the culmination of the story, we’re not sure whether we have witnessed an actual haunting and an attempted possession of these two innocent (and perhaps not so innocent) children or the rapid and complete mental deterioration of their governess.
For the right mindset, The Innocents is as good as a film of this type gets. It’s not going to give anyone nightmares (except for the youngest of film viewers), but it might well be the sort of thing that haunts your waking moments.
Why to watch The Innocents: You’d be hard pressed to find a film with more atmosphere.
Why not to watch: If you’re looking for something to scare you, this one probably won’t do it.