“I can’t judge you, Miss. A body can only judge themselves.” So Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), the housekeeper of a palatial country estate in the eden of rural England, concludes to Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), the new governess who’s grown increasingly convinced that her two young charges are possessed by the sinister spirits of their deceased former caretakers. The exchange happens late in The Innocents, as Jack Clayton’s formative but underappreciated horror masterpiece coheres into a ravishing neo-romantic takedown of Victorian repression, spooky and scathing in equal measure.
Miss Giddens, whom Kerr agreeably claimed was her best role, is a high-strung woman whose outspoken love for children may not be quite as selfless as it seems. Despite having no professional experience, Giddens is hired by an apathetic bachelor (Michael Redgrave) to care for his orphaned niece and nephew at his idyllic country home. Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens) are strange and cloistered children who were previously exposed to the kinky sexual relationship shared between Giddens’ predecessor and the bachelor’s valet, and Giddens pities the kids for that, taking it as her mission to restore and protect their innocence for as long as she can. But as she begins to see apparitions around the property—a robed figure sweeping across a dark hallway, a man emerging from the night to press his demented face against a first floor window—Giddens starts to suspect that the children may be more tainted than she feared.
If The Innocents isn’t quite the oldest scary story in the book, it’s certainly by now one of the most familiar. (But it’s also damn old: The film was adapted from Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn Of The Screw, even though it takes most of its cues from the William Archibald play that inspired its title). Released in 1961 as a response to the somewhat schlocky Hammer horror films of the time, The Innocents is a comparatively restrained ghost story that owes far more to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty And The Beast than it does Terence Fisher’s The Curse Of Frankenstein. In fact, the case could be made that it’s not a ghost story at all; Clayton’s palpable use of the subjective camera ensures that the phantasms are almost never glimpsed from any perspective other than Miss Giddens’—a point cultural critic Christopher Frayling makes during the erudite commentary track included with Criterion’s new edition of the film. The script, co-written by Truman Capote, doesn’t spend much time entertaining the idea that everything is in Giddens’ head. But Kerr’s possessed performance as an unraveling woman nevertheless imbues each seemingly supernatural incident with the intimacy of a nervous breakdown.
In the prudishness of the Victorian era, Capote found the perfect mechanism to combine his distaste for puritanical values with his love for the chiaroscuro drama of Southern gothic atmospheres. In Capote’s hands, Giddens is not just a trembling governess, but a woman so traumatized by the “obscene” darkness of adult desires that she’s practically fetishized the purity of childhood. Her love for children may not be predatory, but it’s worryingly overemphasized from the very first scene. Giddens’ fear of sexuality compels her to guard the estate like a protective mother bird who never wants her eggs to hatch—a dynamic that evolves in super-creepy ways best left unspoiled. Meanwhile, Freddie Francis’ luminous deep-focus cinematography pays attention to the details at the corner of the frame, so that every shadow or balustrade creeps into view like a threat.
Clayton might not be remembered as much of an auteur, but the best of his films (not The Great Gatsby) share an unflinching willingness to look at the social mores from which most people would rather look away. Perhaps the scariest moment in The Innocents is a wide shot of a stream in the middle of the day, Giddens staring directly at the ghost of her predecessor. Despite its clarity, the impeccable picture on Criterion’s Blu-ray does nothing to infringe on the soft eeriness of the film’s imagery, and the smattering of interviews included on the disc—including a package shot in 2006 that features Francis, editor Jim Clark, and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis—help to articulate how that feel was achieved.
On the other hand, part of what makes the film such a timelessly unsettling experience is that Clayton understands the perverse power of the unseen. Each explicitly scary moment (including a jump scare for the ages) resonates all the more for its rareness, and for how clearly each shock adds to Giddens’ anxiety. The fact of whether her visions are “real” is ultimately rendered moot; it’s not the ghosts that Giddens is afraid of, it’s the bodies they left behind.
The Innocents is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Criterion.