19 March 2007

The Innocents (1961)

Directed by: Jack Clayton
Written by: William Archibald & Truman Capote

Grade: A

In contrast to what Gary Giddins called William Castle’s “medium-concept horror movies…for the adolescent market” from the same period, The Innocents is a high-minded ghost story, intended “for adults” as the original trailer makes incessantly clear. Adapted from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, it is a film both literary and poetic, while simultaneously managing to be utterly cinematic and viscerally frightening. It is the rare supernatural thriller that is made exactly how supernatural thrillers ought to be made.

Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens (no relation the aforequoted author), a timid minister’s daughter given her first governess position at a gorgeous country estate, looking after two orphaned children in the indifferent legal care of their insouciant uncle. As Giddens uncovers the house’s sordid past—a tawdry affair between the former governess and the erstwhile valet, both recently deceased—she becomes convinced that ghosts are haunting the grounds and manipulating the children.

In her defense, a lot of creepy stuff happens; but then again, is it really all that creepy? The housekeeper makes an ambiguous remark, ominously in the past tense, but was it just a slip of the tongue? A window slams shut of its own accord and puts a candle out, and at a perfectly frightening moment no less; but couldn’t it reasonably be a mere windy coincidence?

Whereas your ordinary phantasmofilm encourages the viewer to trust in and sympathize with the protagonist, especially when she’s a fraughty woman like Deborah Kerr, The Innocents keeps us at a skeptical arm’s length, although Clayton manages to maintain a mood of fear and suspense through the whole thing, largely through an expressionistic manipulation of light and sound. It seems something ain’t right with those kids, but just as much it seems there ain’t something quite right with Miss Giddens either, no matter how many ghosts she shows us; as she herself admits early on, “sometimes one can’t help imagining things.” Leaving us wondering whether the images are primarily subjective or objective, whether Miss Giddens is crazy right or just plain crazy, The Innocents, like the recent film Zodiac, understands that the most frightening thing of all is not to know.

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