Gather ’round, all my Goth friends, I have a present for you today. Are you tired of watching The Crow over and over? Have you exhausted the entire Tim Burton catalogue? Then why don’t you look to decades past for tales of dark intrigue? And, here, I have the perfect choice.
The 1961 film The Innocents is perhaps the archetypal gothic horror story. It has all the necessary ingredients for a big pot of psychological terror: a large, empty mansion in the middle of the British countryside; a self-obsessed, ever-absent master of the house; an unstable, needy spinster (well, a woman of a certain age, let us say) as governess; and two cute, precocious, possibly telepathic and sociopathic youngsters. To this stew, add a thick dollop of repression and Freudian sexual obsession. Then let it simmer and wait for the inevitable explosion.
Based on Henry James’ classic 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” this tale has been interpreted several times into many different media—opera, ballet, films as well as various television adaptations. The Innocents is perhaps the best and most well regarded version of this classic story.
Miss Giddens (a marvelous Deborah Kerr) interviews with a solipsistic English gentleman for a position as governess for his young niece and nephew. She will have complete control and responsibility for both children and every aspect of their lives. They will live, almost totally alone, on his massive estate in the British countryside…a location with dark secrets of its own. Though this is her first position and it seems a bit overwhelming, Miss Giddens is persuaded by the children’s pushy, yet charming, uncle. From this first meeting, it’s clear that Miss Giddens isn’t quite right, but no matter. The uncle decides he wants her and, well, that’s that. And, oh, one more thing: She must never speak of Miss Jessel, the children’s previous governess, who died mysteriously. Never.
All seems wonderful as Miss Giddens arrives at the estate. She meets the niece, Flora (Pamela Franklin), an excitable, seemingly charming young girl. But as normal as Flora seems, she insists that, although no one has told her, she is certain her brother, Miles (Martin Stephens), will be returning home from school. Sure enough, a letter does arrive stating that Miles will be arriving soon, even though a school break is not upcoming. It seems Miles has been dismissed amid vague accusations of cruelty and torture. Again, no matter; Miles is even more charming than his sister. Constantly referring to Miss Giddens as “my dear,” Miles is an ingratiatingly cheeky young British gentleman. But he’s also kind of creepy—he says suggestive things and plays very rough. And sometimes it seems like he and his sister can read each other’s thoughts. But no matter; Miss Giddens will have these two back on track soon enough.
Soon, stories are flying around the manor house concerning suicide, physical and sexual abuse and depravity, ghosts from the past and, possibly, murder. As Miss Giddens’ hysteria and repression grow, the screw turns tighter. And it all ends in death.
The film is a wonderful tale told well. All the actors are very good, especially the children. The film’s script is quite dense and the kids have a lot of words to recite, as well as a wide range of emotions to convey. Deborah Kerr, here, is far away from her famous role in The King and I. She is the very picture of a repressed, hysterical spinster, and Kerr modulates her characterization expertly. We never know exactly which emotion is leading her personality until we need to. Although the film’s pacing is slow compared to today’s storytelling styles, it is exceedingly effective. For the era in which this film was made, director Jack Clayton moves the camera quite a bit. But he also knows how to compose a static shot as if it’s an oil painting. Also, the black and white cinematography is very sharp and quite attractive.
The Innocents is one of the best gothic horror films ever made. It’s clear that another of my favorite supernatural thrillers, The Haunting, which came along a couple of years later, owes quite a bit to this film.
But no matter, The Innocents is one of a kind.