Friday, July 29, 2011

The Innocents (1961)
UK --- horror

Dir: Jack Clayton

Quite possibly one of the greatest ghost stories on film. I first encounterered this one, when I recorded this movie several years ago off of FOX MOVIE CHANNEL during one of their Halloween marathons. I waited a little later one evening to actually watch it fully, and it spooked the heck out of me. The images still haunt me, and the ending left me with a feeling that most great films leave me with, one of  "what-did-I-just-see-here?". That's impressive, because you're not going to watch too many horror films that make you think afterwards. At the end of "The Innocents", you are left wondering if it was ever really a horror film at all.

Based on both the 1898 horror novella "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James and William Archibald's stage adaptation, "The Innocents" opens quite eerie with a young girl singing a moribund children's song "O'Willow Waly" over a pitch black screen, ambiguously setting the tone of the film. The credit sequence features Deborah Kerr (our Ms. Giddens) in prayer as we go into the her recounting the events of the film. A wealthy bachelor (played by Michael Redgrave) interviews Ms.Giddens as governess over his neice and nephew, Miles and Flora, in an isolated country estate. He demands she be fully independent and trusts her with full authority over the dealings with the children with the assistance of a kinda dotty housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. She accepts the job and is whisked away to the estate where she meets Flora playing outside by herself. Ms. Giddens soon befriends Mrs. Grose, but as they converse, revelations about the children and the past goings-on in the house come to light. Flora begins to rejoice in her brother Miles, coming home from school, even though the school term is still in session.

Soon, Ms. Giddens learns from a letter that Miles has been expelled from his school, and is expected to return home. When Miles (Martin Stephens of "Village of the Damned") arrives, things really begin to heat up for Ms. Giddens, as the supernatural paranoia in the home rises. Ms. Giddens soon claims to see a man and a woman around the estate. She's informed from photographs left behind the house that it's the old caretaker Peter Quint, and the woman is probably Ms. Jessel, the previous governness. Ms. Giddens learns that both Quint and Jessel died in or around the house. Both of them were very attached to the children as well. So, Ms. Giddens concludes that through careful observation of the children's peculiarly advanced behavior, that they either know about the ghosts of Quint and Jessel or are somehow possessed by their spirits. Curiously, her apparition sightings increase. Finally she confides in Mrs. Grose that she has seen the ghosts, and when Grose reveals that the two were in a torrid love affair, Ms. Giddens confronts the children on what they may have seen around the house. Unfortunately, her inference brings her to the absolute brink of obsession over what is truth and what is reality.

"The Innocents" belongs in that kinda rare little subgenre of the ghost story, belonging to not only a haunted house film, but one involving a woman alone (or just in confronted) in a haunted house. I can't begin to find the origin of this, my first inkling is something like the fairy tale "Blue Beard" or any of them, really, that involve a little girl lost in the woods. This kind of film serves as a psychological character study. The film dredges up issues like Ms. Giddens repressed sexuality being a cause of her possible delusions. Nuances like Flora correcting herself during prayer, or Miles' ever-so-longingly seductive kiss on the lips to Ms. Giddens, make for the entire film to be wrapped in ambiguity; and it never misses a beat. We must always remember we are watching a first person perspective flashback of events that happened, which in hindsight can shed light on the film's narrative.

Deborah Kerr does an excellent job in this film, and is one of her best performances. Also, the young Martin Stephens is incredible for a child actor, who does a 180 degree performance from his "Village of the Damned" role playing lead alien David. Like most great horror films, this one utilizes sight and sound to mass effect, including a running theme of chirping birds, creepy statues, and deep focus widescreen shots that always allows the audience to check the background for something or someone that seems out of place. The score provided by George Auric is subtle and eerie, and it comes to no surprise he also worked on "Dead of Night". Also, Hammer horror vet Freddie Francis composes the gothic noir-esque cinematography, with deep blacks and appropriate blinding light when needed. A prequel of the story was made in 1971 called "The Nightcomers" starring Marlon Brando as Peter Quint.