British Cinema, Horror

The Innocents (1961)

For me this is the greatest British horror film. Whenever I think of haunted houses, or of ghosts wandering about amongst the living, this is the film which first springs to my mind. 

This film has such a spooky and unnerving atmosphere about it. The cinematography and lighting add a great deal perfectly creating an unsettling and eerie look to every scene. The period set design is the icing on this horror cake because it really looks like a real home of the period.

Miss Giddens goes in search of ghosts. Screenshot by me.

I happen to think that spooky old houses are really the best locations to set horror stories in. Think about it for a second. You have creaking floorboards, very old houses, flickering candles and plenty of dark corners; add the possibilities of spirits messing with you and you have got yourself one very creepy situation indeed. 

The Innocents is based upon the Henry James novel, The Turn of the Screw. It is a very creepy, and claustrophobic film. I think that it makes for perfect viewing on a dark night, or on a dark and stormy afternoon.

The film is directed by Jack Clayton, it has photography by Freddie Francis, a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, and has some truly eerie and atmospheric music by Georges Auric.

From the very beginning this film intrigues the viewer and is highly unsettling. The opening film logos and credits are accompanied by an eerie song that sounds like its straight out of the Victorian era. Birds can be heard chirping on the soundtrack and we also hear the whimpers of a woman.

We then see a distraught woman (who we later learn to be Miss Giddens), her hands clasped together in prayer. We see she is deeply distressed but we have no idea why or what is going on. I think this is such a good way to open the film as it sets up the tone and atmosphere of the film right away,  and it also really makes you wonder about what you are seeing.

The young and much repressed Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr)becomes the new governess to adorable siblings Flora and Miles (Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens). As time goes on she begins to suspect that the two children are being possessed by the souls of two dead former servants Quint and Miss Jessel(Peter Wyngarde and Clytie Jessop.)

Miss Giddens notices that the siblings behave very oddly and seem to be aware of things that nobody else is aware of. Miles acts very much like an adult in the way he speaks and behaves. There is just something not right about him at all and he acts in a very creepy manner.

For one so young, Martin Stephens very adeptly conveys a wisdom and worldliness way beyond his years, and he does so in a very unsettling way indeed. In my opinion Martin delivers the most unsettling child performances in film history (the little boy from the original Omen film comes in a close second). Martin is especially excellent in the scenes where Miles talks to Miss Giddens in the way a man who was her lover would do, these scenes are very strange and he makes you believe he is possessed by an older man. Weird stuff.

                                  Creepy siblings Miles and Flora. Screenshot by me.

Miles and Flora seem to be almost telepathically linked. The siblings seem to communicate with one another through a series of glances and expressions which convey to us that there are secrets between them known only to them. Their weird behaviour only adds even more creepiness to the proceedings. Miss Giddens then begins to see ghosts around the house. Or does she?

It is precisely this ambiguity regarding the ghosts that makes this film so effective I believe. You can view the occurrences in the film in two ways – either Miss Giddens really does see the ghosts, and the children really are possessed or else Miss Giddens is suffering a mental breakdown and is imaging the whole thing. Either scenario is terrifying and whichever you believe(I actually believe that it is a combination of both)is scary and makes the ending shocking and sad.

The ghost in the lake. Screenshot by me.

Personally I think that the children were corrupted by the things they saw Quint and Miss Jessel do together, so what they witnessed has affected their behaviour.

Quint and Miss Jessel were also the only companions the children had ever known, so they now try and imitate these adults even after their death. In a way their imitation of the deceased means that they are bringing these people back to life, isn’t this another form of possession?

Miss Giddens hears about the dead servants and begins to fear them and their supernatural influence. She then begins to see them.

I think she really does see these horrors, but whether they are actually real ghosts or just her fears manifesting I wouldn’t like to say, to her though they are certainly real apparitions.

This is the type of horror film I like best. It is one where you’re not sure if you just glimpsed something in the corner of your eye, or if something just brushed past a character causing a candle to flicker. I much prefer psychological horror to gore and this film certainly makes you think and it is one that really creeps me out every time I watch it.

I think that Deborah gives one of the very best performances of her entire career here. She captures this woman’s growing fear and paranoia. She starts off portraying her as an eager, shy and happy woman. By the end of the film we see her as a broken, terrified and extremely unstable woman.

I think it is a real shame that Deborah never again got another role like this. She does such a terrific job of conveying Miss Giddens growing fear and obsessions. As the film goes on she looks more and more paranoid, worn out, ill and nervous.

The children are excellent and deliver performances far beyond what most child actors could deliver. The fact that they manage to be creepy, unsettling and adorable all at the same time says a great deal about their acting abilities.

Megs Jenkins as the housekeeper who doesn’t understand what is going on. Screenshot by me.

Megs Jenkins is very good as the kindly housekeeper who adores the children. Megs conveys her characters great difficulty in believing any of what Miss Giddens says, but also being powerless to undermine her and her authority within the house. 

Beautiful costumes, a stunning garden location (Sheffield Park Gardens)and a gothic atmosphere all combine together to make The Innocents a must see horror film.

My favourite scenes the following. The ghost of the lady appearing in the middle of the lake. Miss Giddens first walk around the beautiful gardens. The conversation between Miss Giddens and Miles, where she becomes convinced that he is possessed. The scene where Miss Giddens walks around the corridors with a candle hearing laughter. Quint’s appearance in the windows.

Are you a fan of this film? Please leave your thoughts below.




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