Starring: Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins, Michael Redgrave,
Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Clytie Jessop, Isla Cameron
Director: Jack Clayton
Story: In Victorian-era England, the new governess for two young children
comes to believe the estate they live on is haunted.
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’s say) as governess; and two cute,
precocious, possibly sociopathic and telepathic, young children. Add to that
stew a thick dollop of Freudian sexual obsession and repression and let
simmer and wait to explode. Based on the classic 1898 novella ”The Turn of
the Screw” by Henry James, this tale has been interpreted several times into
many different media—opera, ballet, films, and various television adaptations.
The Innocents is perhaps the best and most well regarded version of this
Miss Giddens (a wonderful 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, and 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
She meets the niece, Flora (Pamela Franklin), an excitable, seemingly
charming young girl. But as normal as Flora seems, she insists she knows
that her brother, Miles (Martin Stephens), will be returning home from school
soon. 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 from school, admidst vague accusations of cruelty and harming
things. 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 manner house concerning possible
murder, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, a dominant/submissive
relationship, and ghosts from the past. As Miss Giddens’ hysteria and
repression grow, the screw turns tighter (as Mr. James might have written).
And it all ends in death. The film is pretty much a wonderful tale well told. All
the actors are very good, with thee children especially so. This film’s script is
quite dense and the kids have a lot of words to recite, as well as several
feelings 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.
She 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 still effective. For the time period, director Jack Clayton moves the
camera quite a bit, but he also knows how to compose a static shot as if it’s
a 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 The Innocents. But
no matter, The Innocents is one of a kind.
Genres: Horror, Thriller
Runtime: 100 minutes
Review done by: Theron Neel
Online since: February 20th, 2006