There is one horror film that I inevitably watch every single October. That film is Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Based on Henry James’ short story The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents is one of the most chilling gothic horror films ever produced. Though I’ve probably seen it dozens of times, I’m not exaggerating to say it sends shivers down my spine on each viewing.
The film revolves around Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) who is hired as the governess for two wealthy orphans at a massive mansion under strict guidelines that she not bother their neglectful uncle under any circumstances. As Miss Giddens adjusts to her new post, she begins to uncover the troubling details surrounding the life and demise of her predecessor as well as the mansion’s former groundskeeper. In the midst of her detective work, Miss Giddens begins to see strange things around the grounds.
The treatment of the ghostly appearances in The Innocents is masterful. Supernatural occurrences are brief, infrequent, and usually quite distant. There is no shocking jump scare, but instead the looming reminder of the troubling history of the house. The ghosts terrify in that they are entirely subdued, reminding the audience of the ghosts which may loom over their own pasts. They are also relatively immobile. When the spirits do appear, they are still, scaring not with action but merely with their presence and with the threat that they might represent.
By far my favorite element of The Innocents is the performances of the children. Flora (Pamela Franklin), the youngest of the children, is originally warm and welcoming toward Miss Giddens. She is eager to befriend her new governess and only later in the film does she begin to exhibit unnerving behavior. Martin Stephens’ performance as Miles is, however, one of the best and most chilling child performances I’ve ever seen. He is, from his first line, deeply unsettling. The vague impression that he may know much about the unusual events surrounding the house is unnerving and his tone is often politely nefarious. Ultimately, his childlike tone is his most horrifying trait as the audience ponders the disturbing notion that these kids might be genuinely innocent.
The Innocents is visually definitive for the genre. The film could not have possibly worked in color, with the black and white and the gothic setting making for a perfect environment for the tale. It seems to exist out of time, and the occupied mansion feels entirely isolated as if it were a world all its own. The grounds are deserted save the main cast of characters and the occasional unsettled spirit. The shadowy and muted environment, in its beauty, represents a grave threat both to Miss Giddens’ safety and to her sanity.
The Innocents is as psychological as horror gets. It refuses to explicitly state that any event actually happened as it was portrayed and it forces the viewer to question their own sanity along with that of every character. You will question everything you see and the jaw dropping ending will offer you no reassurances to help you get to sleep at night.