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The Innocents (1961)

For me this is the greatest ghost film. Whenever I think of films featuring haunted houses, it is this film which always springs first into my mind.  The cinematography and lighting both add so much to the film, with each one helping to provide an extremely  unsettling and eerie look in every scene. The period set design is the icing on this horror cake because the house interiors look like a real home of the period in which the film is set.   

I don’t know about you, but I happen to think that spooky old houses are really the best locations to set horror stories in. An old haunted house gives you creaking floorboards, flickering candles and plenty of dark corners; add in the possibilities of spirits messing with your mind, and you really have got yourself one very frightening experience indeed.  

The Innocents is based upon the novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. It is a very frightening 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 stunning black and white photography by Freddie Francis, a brilliant screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, and it has a truly eerie and atmospheric score by Georges Auric. The film is very much a slow build and it is well worth sticking with to see the horror and tension build as the film goes along.

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Miss Giddens hears something go bump in the night. Screenshot by me.

From the very beginning this film intrigues the viewer and is highly unsettling at the same time. 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 that she is deeply distressed, but we have no idea why she is, nor do we have any idea about 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 unfold before your eyes.

The unsettling atmosphere continues as Jack Clayton goes against horror traditions and has many of the scary moments in the film take place in the daytime. Traditionally the day is a safe time in horror films, but in this film there is little respite from the horror and suspense we are witnessing on screen. 

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

Miss Giddens notices that the siblings behave very oddly and that they seem to be aware of things that nobody else is aware of. Miles also 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 is so unsettling to be around.

For one so young, I think that the actor Martin Stephens very adeptly conveys a wisdom and worldliness way beyond his years here. 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 that a man who was her lover would do. These scenes between Miles and Miss Giddens are very strange, and they certainly make for quite uncomfortable viewing too. Martin really makes you believe that he is an older and very worldly man in these scenes. Freaky stuff!

          Miles and Flora. Screenshot by me.

The other weird thing about Miles, is that he 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 in my opinion. Either Miss Giddens really does see the ghosts, and the children really are possessed, or 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 both shocking and sad.

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The ghost in the lake. Screenshot by me.

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

It should also be remembered that Quint and Miss Jessel were the only people who the children had ever been close too. The children loved and admired these two very much, and when they died, the children were completely devastated and didn’t know what to do with themselves.

I think that both children now try and imitate Quint and Miss Jessel after their death so that they can keep them alive in a way.  

I don’t think that the children have any idea that the behavior they mimic is considered morally wrong. The children grew up with Quint and Miss Jessel, they were exposed to nothing but their violent and sexual behaviour for many years, so for them this behaviour is considered normal.  

The children’s imitation of the deceased means that they are bringing these two people back to life, isn’t this another form of possession? So maybe Miss Giddens is correct when she says the children are possessed, it is just that they are not literally being controlled by spirits as she believes. 

Miss Giddens hears about the dead servants and begins to fear them and their supernatural influence. She then begins to see them, either for real or in her mind due to their presence lingering on strongly even after their deaths. I think Miss Giddens really does see these horrors. The question is are they actually real ghosts? Or are they hallucinations brought on by her rapidly increasing paranoia and fear? To her though there is no doubt that what she sees are very 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 in the process.

I much prefer psychological horror to gore and this film is certainly one which makes you think. It is also one that really creeps me out every time I watch it. I also like that it allows you to draw your own conclusions about what is actually happening to Miss Giddens as the film goes along.

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Miss Giddens looks across the lake. Screenshot by me.

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, Deborah starts to look more and more paranoid, worn out, ill and nervous. She really does deliver a magnificent performance. 

The children are excellent too and deliver performances far beyond what most child actors of this age could manage to deliver. The fact that they manage to be creepy, unsettling,innocent and adorable all at the same time says a great deal about their acting abilities in my opinion. Pamela Franklin would go on to do more great horror work over a decade later, when she played a gifted young medium in The Legend Of Hell House

Megs Jenkins is very good as the kindly housekeeper. Megs conveys her characters great difficulty in believing any of what Miss Giddens says, but also how she is totally powerless to undermine her authority within the house and get the children away from her. 

My favourite scenes in the film are the following. The ghost appearing in the reeds in the lake. Miss Giddens first walk around the beautiful gardens. The conversation between Miss Giddens and Miles, where she first 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.

I have seen this film so many times, I know what’s going to happen and yet I am still fascinated and frightened by it each time I watch. This truly is one of the best horror films ever made. 

I would love to get your thoughts on this film.

 

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14 thoughts on “The Innocents (1961)”

  1. “Unsettling. “Uncomfortable.” Truly, these are words to describe The Innocents. I am not brave enough to watch this on my own on a dark and stormy night. I totally agree with you about Deborah Kerr’s performance. She is a remarkable actress and this role gave her something worthy of that talent. Miss Giddens is not among her six Oscar nominations and I am at a loss with that omission.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful review! I first saw this movie as a child (what on earth were my parents thinking?!) and it has terrified me to this day! The Innocents is in my top five horror/suspense films, along with The Haunting (1963), The Woman in Black (1989), The Stepford Wives (1975) and The Birds (1963). Those five movies never cease to terrify me, but in such a delicious way!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I still have not seen this film. Why? I don’t know. I really want to. Probably because horror movie scare me. Yes, they do. I can’t sleep after watching them. But I’ve heard so many good things about The Innocents I’ll watch it. Even if I’ll have a sleepless night.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember staying up late as a child to watch this with my grandmother and the scene of the lady in the reeds absolutely terrified me. It’s one of the most haunting and disturbing scenes in a ghost film and far more effective than later films with all the special effects at the director’s disposal. Truly one of the best ‘ghost’ films around. Thanks for a great review, Maddy!

    Liked by 1 person

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