Innocents, The (1961)

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 03/10/11 21:01:12

"Things that go bump and bang in the night."
5 stars (Awesome)

The Innocents, an adaptation of the classic story The Turn of the Screw is one of the most chilling ghost stories put to screen, if not the scariest of all. But underneath the nerve-freezing moments there's a raging, fiery heart of lust and ill passion.

In 19th century England, Miss Gittens (Deborah Kerr) is employed as a governess to travel to the isolated country estate of Bly House to act as mentor and tutor to two young children, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin). Arriving there in the midst of summer, she finds only a skeleton staff in the house, led by cheery housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins) - but perhaps that's not all. Gittens soon begins to hear voices and sees figures around the estate that no-one else can see, although the two figures seem to have an unnerving influence over the children - particularly Miles.

It's a classic set-up we've seen time and time again in ghost stories, from The Haunting to The Others, with the spectral figures being presented as ambiguous in either form or as the fevered imaginings of a fragile psyche. Clayton opts for the latter option, and weaves in paranormal appearances that are frightening in their simple nonchalance. Ghostly figures waft by in corridors, loom out of the darkness towards Gittens or, most chilling of all, appear as still and silent figures doing nothing but watching the children in the middle of the day. It's a difficult thing to make scenes set in broad daylight scary, but Clayton pulls it off assuredly, with a good couple of bloodcurdling images all the more effective for their contrast to the gorgeous weather and surroundings.

Indeed, part of the power of The Innocents is how Clayton's direction subverts the norm of what we expect from horror films. The balmy heat of the summer becomes stifling and constrictive, the haze forming a cold sweat of terror across the increasingly paranoid Gittens. The isolated beauty of the Bly estate becomes foreboding and the gardens wilt in the sun, overgrow with weeds and heave with bugs swarming over statues. It's a beautiful place, but a beauty undercut with decay and disintegration, neatly mirroring the disintegrating grip on reality that Gittens has. There's a sickly sense of unease coursing through the film, particularly during the day and it balances the severe case of night terrors that Clayton deals out when Gittens and the children tuck themselves in for some disturbed sleep. He has a real eye for shadows and darkness and transforms the house into a place of dread that we all have nightmares about - one candlelit trip across a hallway is a particularly effective exercise in hammering at the nerves.

Kerr gives a good wide-eyed performance as the frazzled governess, winding up several notches of hysteria as the film plays while selling the florid language and behaviour of the period well and Stephens and Franklin tread the line between sweet and sinister superbly. But then it's not just the paranormal activity that gives the film it's crawling discomfort and creates the tension between the governess and her charges. As it becomes clear that the house was also home to pleasures of the flesh, the Freudian undertones ramp up and throw some interesting questions alongside the ghostly going's on. The house itself is cleverly designed with subtle phallic symbols blending into the surroundings, addling layers of perversion to an already troubling sequence of events. The fevered heat becomes a reflection of Gittens' unease at the sexual history of the estate and the staff and Miles in particular acts as someone years beyond his age. Calling Gittens "my dear" throughout and complimenting her on her looks, there's something adult and inappropriate going on behind his eyes, but where does it come from? It's that mystery tied in with the apparitions that gives The Innocents its powerful ambiguity, climaxing in what's still a shocking sign of affection from Miles towards Gittens. Gittens is clearly wrapped up in layers and layers of repression, slowly letting out key details of her childhood that constantly keep us off-guard and make us question if these figures really do exist.

James' story revolves around ambiguity throughout - is Gittens mad or hallucinating? Why is this her first job when she's a lady of certain years? - which only intensifies the increasing sense of terror that builds up to its puzzling climax. What has actually happened is a question that Clayton leaves to the imagination of the viewer and it's an ending certain to inspire fierce debate - once you stop shaking in fear, of course.

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