Director Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (with a screenplay co-written by Truman Capote), The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, a newly-hired governess of an English playboy’s country estate, watching over two children, one of whom has just been expelled from school. The children, Miles and Flora, at first seem nice and charming, but their behavior grows increasingly strange. Miss Giddens begins to see apparitions which correspond to what she has been told of the previous governess and valet, a decadent pair who wound up dead. She quickly becomes convinced that the ghosts wish to possess the souls of the children, and tries what she can to save the children’s lives.
Ghost stories tend to be the most subtle and genteel of the conventional forms the horror genre takes, and The Innocents, though frightening, is quite restrained for a horror film, coming in between the more overt horror of the classic monster movies and the later splatter movies. We are never told for sure whether the ghosts actually exist or are the byproduct of Miss Giddens’s madness—those who can’t handle such ambiguity should probably stay away. Not all the complexity of Henry James can survive the transition to the screen, of course, but the characterizations in The Innocents admirably provide the film’s staying power.
This is helped by the terrific performances of Deborah Kerr and the two children, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin. The film also benefits from the lush cinematography of Freddie Francis, showcasing the lovely estate and the terrors hidden not only in the darkness, but sometimes in broad daylight. Highlights include Miss Giddens’s trip through the house during a game of hide-and-seek, using only a candelabra for illumination, and the appearance of the former governess, Miss Jessel, standing across a lake. It is the influence of Miss Jessel and the valet, Mr. Quint, over the children which provides the film with its main theme, that of moral corruption. From what we hear, the two servants, adored by the children, had a sadomasochistic relationship, and encouraged dissimulation and deceit in their young charges. The behavioral habits the children picked up from the dead pair’s example represent the “haunting” of the living by the dead.
Whether or not anything genuinely supernatural is going on in the story, The Innocents is a creepy affair that will provide brave viewers with quite a treat for this Halloween season.