The pedigree of The Innocents is so estimable that one would think the film to be bronzed upon delivery: Henry James adapted to the screen by Truman Capote (!) starring British Hollywood royalty Deborah Kerr, and directed by an up-and-comer named Jack Clayton, whose prior film, the kitchen-sinky Brit new waver Room at the Top, got a Best Picture nomination. What’s most surprising, even forty-five years later, is that The Innocents remains one of the least compromised, most genuinely unsettling studio films of the 1960s, a horror film in both the metaphysical and psychological senses, brought to the screen with more care and craftsmanship than the haunted-house genre probably ever received before or since. Robert Wise’s The Haunting, similarly black-and-white and predicated upon the thin line between possession and madness, stole its thunder two years later, and seemingly for the rest of the century: the latter, a slightly more resolved and narratively accessible trip into the supernatural, shows up regularly on Scariest Movies of All Time lists, while Jack Clayton’s devastating journey into the interior world of the haunted has been greatly forgotten.
What a shame, because anyone who pops in the recently released DVD of The Innocents is in for a big, wide shock: this Cinemascope adaptation of James’s The Turn of the Screw is one of the most exquisitely modulated ghost stories ever shot. When I say that The Innocents is the most “classical” of horror films, I refer primarily to its view on death. Death is here something to be profoundly feared, something that can’t be quantified; the ghostly realm exists not as a concept but as a reality and an end point. Vividly representing that fear is Deborah Kerr’s increasingly wide-eyed Miss Giddens, the pastor’s daughter who takes the job as governness of two young orphans at a remote British estate; her transition from tremulous truth-seeker to manic madwoman, as she begins to suspect that young Miles and Flora are possessed by the spirits of the dead, is so gradual as to be imperceptible, and her invocation of fear is breathtakingly palpable, even as we begin to distrust it. Yet young Pamela Franklin and, especially the preternatural man-child Martin Stephens (who one year before was in Village of the Damned, natch) are every bit her match; theirs is a secret world (the world of children, perhaps nothing more?) that Miss Giddens begins to greatly distrust, until she tries to violently snap them out of it.
What’s most remarkable about The Innocents isn’t merely its tonal and narrative faithfulness to Henry James’s story (it is simply shocking that the film has the same grim ending as the book), but that in so doing, Clayton still manages to make something uniquely, utterly cinematic. The Innocents features some of the most effective 2.35:1 compositions in film history, as well as the best use of the dissolve cut I can recall in a mainstream movie (often one scene will fade out onto one another, slowly, lingering as though draped over the next like a vapor, or a death shroud). There are more grab-your-throat gasps and literal hair-raising moments in this film than even in its soul sister, Alejandro Amenabar’s masterful 2001 homage The Others, which managed to create its own unique world while trading in Clayton’s same hushed, candlelit setting.
The Innocents is a ghost story (faces materialize at nighttime windows, a woman dressed in black appears amongst tall reeds by a rippling pond, shadows and silhouettes seem to dance at the corners of every wide frame), yet it’s not content to just be a ghost story. Even James’s sexual frankness, and intimations of pedophilia snake their way onto the screen—preadolescent Miles’s supposed possession by the “handsome” lothario Quint makes for some seriously perverse magnetism between he and his “pretty” governness. The Innocents hasn’t dated a day thanks to its sophisticated ambiguity; here, explanations mean nothing, and nobody has answers, just an endless tangle of secrets, hazy motivations, and impenetrable facades. As close as we get to Kerr’s unraveling governness, the less we know her, until it’s far too late.