I have been a fan of Deborah Kerr for many years, I greatly admire her work and The Innocents has long been one of my favourite in her catalogue of stunning performances (Kerr also regarded it as her finest performance). I had the pleasure to re-watch this film and enjoy again the superb acting, lighting, sound and dialogue that, put together, makes this film a classic in the horror genre.
The Innocents is loosely based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and was directed by Jack Clayton. It stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens who takes up the post of governess to two children in the country. All is not right in the house and she soon begins to suspect that both the grounds and the children themselves are being haunted by previous staff members who have died in the house. The Innocents has a haunting beginning; a black screen holds for several seconds and a child’s voice begins to sing an eerie tune, this becomes a theme throughout the picture. This then passes and the Twentieth Century Fox Sign fades on and off the screen. People running the projection actually thought this was a mistake left on the film and often cut the song from the beginning of the picture. The credits begin in front of a black background along the right side of the screen and we see a pair of hands in prayer and begging alongside on the left amid sobs and moans. The camera then pulls back to reveal Kerr’s face; eyes closed, head facing the sky. An atmosphere has been created without a single word being uttered. A disturbing mood has been created and the audience is unnerved immediately.
Kerr’s Miss Giddens basically adopts the two children Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) when their bachelor uncle hires her. She immediately feels a sense of duty and is bound to the children and this is only strengthened with time. Fairly early into her employment Miss Giddens begins to see things, unsure if it is her imagination she brushes it off at first until the realization that something is very wrong in this house.
The performances given by Stephens and Franklin are beyond what could be expected of children so young, there is so much meaning and subtlety to their performances. We truly believe along with Kerr’s character that there is something unwholesome about them. At first, she is nothing short of thrilled at their charm and amiability but we are told of Miles expulsion from school before he arrives and there is something sinister about him and there is always a look of doubt in Giddens eyes when they are together. He is old before his time, he calls her my dear but it is no term of endearment, it comes across as patronizing as if he were the one talking to a child. There is an extremely controversial kiss on the lips, but this is no child’s kiss it is mature and sexual; there were thoughts of cutting it from the film. This thankfully was decided against, it is a shocking moment, uncomfortable and indecent; it only adds to the awareness that the governess has about the corruption surrounding and enveloping her charges. She can’t know exactly what is really going on behind those old eyes but she is not convinced with his act and neither are we.
It is not long after that Miss Giddens begins to see apparitions in the grounds and house, the housekeeper simple and kind and with a continuous look of holding something back, reveals that the master’s old valet died on the steps of the house and the previous governess who was in love with him killed herself in the lake. Miss Giddens was growing weary already and with this revelation her attitude to both the house and the children shifts; she becomes distracted by the thought of these malevolent spirits wandering around. She becomes convinced that they are linked to the children, after hearing worrying stories about the connection between the valet and Miles and the governess and Flora. There are hints throughout the film that the children are not as innocent as they seem and they appear to be linked not just in body but in mind; Flora has a premonition that Miles is coming home before the letter even arrives confirming it. The audience is almost in certain agreement with Miss Giddens that these children are communicating with the dead and are perhaps even as far as being possessed by them so they can be together again.
What is clever about this film, is the more the past is revealed and the more Kerr comes to understand what is happening in the house, the more she seems to be the one becoming unhinged. It is such an ingenious performance, we have distrusted the children from the beginning but suddenly for a split second, we doubt ourselves. These children are playing mindless games with the dead lovers against the governess and it is only her love of the children that powers her determination to save them and keep her horror at bay. This is a film shrouded in suspicion and doubt, the scares are very subtle no big shocks needed here, the acting is enough to unsettle anyone; incredibly ominous there is a definite macabre atmosphere created for this film with its Victorian setting very important to this. The tone is really created not with any conventional horror tricks and jumps but with dialogue. There are double meanings to many of the conversations and predicting what is really being said is what makes the film so intriguing. The film benefits completely from being in black and white, there are so many beautiful shots in the picture; the effort that has gone into the lighting alone is mind-blowing.
The film would not have been the same without the black and white format used; cinematographer Freddie Francis used so many lights on the set, Deborah Kerr reportedly wore sunglasses in-between takes and he was jokingly accused of trying to burn down Shepperton Studios. But without this lighting The Innocents would be an entirely different film, it creates a mood so ghoulish that there is no need to shock the audience into being horrified, it is a feeling they keep with them from the moment the theme starts until the end of the movie.
The horror is created with sound effects as well as lighting, these effects become clearer and louder the further into the film we progress, they build into a crescendo as the threat grows larger. The elements themselves (wind and rain) seem to be in on it and help to create one of the greatest psychological thrillers Britain ever produced. For any film fan, this is a must-see, if you’re a fan of Horror, British Film-making, Deborah Kerr or simply a classic from a great period of cinema this is one for your collection.
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