A dazzling and disturbing psychological horror film, The Innocents is tremendous fun. This 1961 picture directed by Jack Clayton is a distressing and exhilarating adaptation of Henry James’ classic “The Turn of the Screw” novella. It is also a psychologically complex movie, one that doesn’t pander to its audience or carve everything out in agonizingly obvious detail.
It’s hard to call The Innocents a ghost film in the traditional sense, as little time is spent with the spectres and their appearance is nearly incidental to the central character drama. The off-kilter approach is the best way to handle the material, however, and the artifacts of subjugation, religiosity and Gothic drama really propel this tale of terror to its sensational conclusion.
Deborah Kerr is wonderful as Miss Giddens, a woman applying to be the governess of two kids. She is hired by their wealthy and admittedly self-serving uncle (Michael Redgrave), who insists that he’s left alone from their upbringing. Giddens arrives at his sprawling estate in the country and meets Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens).
At first, things go well. Giddens forges a friendship with the housekeeper (Megs Jenkins) and takes to the estate nicely. But when Miles arrives home after being expelled from school things take a turn for the strange. Giddens becomes paranoid that the children are sharing secrets and, what’s more, she believes she sees the ghosts of former workers at the estate.
Giddens’ concern over the paranormal shifts from fear to fascination, especially when the housekeeper Mrs. Grose tells her of the workers’ sexually charged relationship. Giddens, raised by a pastor and alone in the world save for her vocation at the estate, seems to gather steam from the burly and brawny tale of the deceased Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and starts to see him around the mansion peering in at her.
The Innocents wisely uses Giddens’ lack of experience as a governess as an excuse of sorts for how she doesn’t quite get how kids are. Nothing Miles and Flora do amounts to anything “bad,” but the woman’s understanding of the world has her questioning everything. When tales of her wanton predecessor are thrown into the mix, her homespun repression really comes to life inside and stirs her loins.
In effect, that’s really what this movie is about. It may well be the oddest sexual awakening put to film, especially given the elements of paranormal activity and Giddens’ peculiar and disturbing affinity for Miles. The latter aspect gave The Innocents an audacious X-rating upon its initial release, proving just how delirious and depraved the storyline really is.
Of course, The Innocents doesn’t earn its infamy cheaply. Its Gothic feel darkens the corners, while the spirit of confinement and alienation is alive and well at the estate. It’s not surprising that Giddens would reach some spring of repression, especially considering the isolation, lust and ambiguity that plagues her.
Following Clayton’s film through its corridors is also a matter of finding out who can be trusted. Is Giddens a reliable presence or is she out of her tree? The possibility is that both angles could be true and Truman Capote’s input to the screenplay (finished up by William Archibald) does the audience no favours in terms of finding gratifying clarity.
In place of lucidity, The Innocents toys with the psychology of its characters. By leading the action through hollow halls, dark sitting rooms and vague but cool bedrooms, Clayton plants his aesthetic feet. And by sometimes overwhelming with a blare of dissonance, whether from Flora’s disturbing shrieks or the lunacy of sound heard (or felt) by Giddens in the deep of night, he seals the deal.
With one of the most portentous and perturbing textures of the 1960s, The Innocents is a classic of Gothic terror for a reason. From an early lovely-but-deadly shot of a spider eating a butterfly (note how Flora cheers for the arachnid) to Gibbens’ scarcely internalized breaking of almost every Victorian taboo, Clayton’s movie is a masterwork of the black and tormented nexus of the spiritual and the sexual.