31 Days to Scare ~The Innocents (1961)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An emotionally fragile governess comes to suspect that there is something very, very wrong with her precocious new charges.
Stars: Deborah Kerr, Michael Redgrave, Megs Jenkins, Peter Wyngarde, Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephens
Director: Jack Clayton
Rated: NR
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review:  Watching suspense thrillers from decades ago today, I often wonder what it must have been like for audiences that hadn’t been pre-conditioned to copious amounts of violence and intense terror onscreen to experience them for the first time.  There’s a vulnerability to sitting with a crowd in a movie theater and being transported into a story that sets out to jangle your nerves and an art to the scare that has gotten lost over the years.  True, many of the same viewers that went to these movies had lived through (or served in) one or more heinous wars, so they were aware of the real-world horrors that were possible.  However, a fair amount hadn’t, so the fear a film could conjure had legitimate power.  So I have to imagine that The Innocents packed a wallop when first released in December 1961. 

An adaptation of the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, it was brought to the screen by director/producer Jack Clayton who took William Archibald’s pre-existing stage version of James’ ghost story and had Truman Capote revise it for the screen.  Capote, pausing his writing of In Cold Blood to help out his good friend Clayton, imbues the film with its gothic wares, and additional material from John Mortimer makes the dialogue ring even more faithful to its setting in Victorian England.  Add inventive black-and-white cinematography from the legendary Freddie Francis (Nightmare), and The Innocents went into production with a hefty advantage.

A largely faithful re-telling of the novella, The Innocents is the story of a governess hired to care for two orphaned children at the behest of their absent uncle.  Told the former nanny died suddenly, it’s only after she arrives at the uncle’s country manor that the inexperienced (read: repressed) governess finds out the young woman committed suicide and her lover, the valet, also perished around the same time.  When the children start misbehaving in out-of-character ways, the increasingly terrified governess begins to believe the ghosts of the dead are attempting to possess the bodies of the children, and it is her responsibility to protect their souls at all costs…at any cost. 

The original work by Henry James is, on the surface, a spooky ghost story relayed as a Christmas Eve tale literally read aloud by a fire.  The stage adaptation was a popular drawing-room mystery legitimizing what James had only implied.  The screen version imagined by Clayton and Captone is more surreal and ethereal, and that’s why it’s been rightfully knighted as one of the best ghost stories ever.  Even if the audience is often left to make up their mind about what the governess (a luminous Deborah Kerr, The King & I) is seeing and if she’s going mad or truly warding off specters of danger, it’s always clear that some kind of threat is present in the intimidating Bly Manor.

As for scares, it’s incredible how effective The Innocents is over sixty years after its release.  Opening with a long stretch of complete blackness with only a child’s singing as a voiceover, it’s one of the most shiver-inducing beginnings to any horror film ever.  Clayton doesn’t stop there, playing the credits over hands outstretched in prayer that will only make sense later in the movie.  Faces appear in windows, bodies turn up in marshes, and there’s a general sense that anything could be lurking just outside of the glow of the candles used to light the way of the governess as she attempts to find out what’s going bump in the night.  The suspense is doled out with great sophistication, making a watch in 2023 a bona fide nail-biter. Plus, the children (Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens) are incredibly creepy but darn good actors at the same time.

Attempts would be made for years to remake The Turn of the Screw in multiple forms of media.  There would be additional movies for the big and small screen, an opera, and most recently, The Haunting of Bly Manor, a 2020 Netflix series created by Mike Flanagan.  Hoping to recreate their phenomenal success of the fantastic The Haunting of Hill House, you can see what Flanagan was going for in tackling Henry James, but stretching the story out over multiple hours didn’t work.  This is meant to be a compact, tight story that doesn’t let any air out as it progresses.  If anything, it squeezes tighter as the minutes tick on so that by the end, when it reaches its (some say) ambiguous ending, you can barely catch your breath. 

A must-see for every true fan of the ghost/haunting/suspense genre. 

Where to watch The Innocents (1961)

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