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Jack Clayton's adaptation of Henry James' novel Turn of the Screw is considered a horror classic that is set apart from the usual Hammer style British horror prevalent during the second part of the 1960s. It's a spooky film as opposed to the gory horror, but its appeal and power is in its visual simplicity.
Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a governess employed to look after two young children, Flora and Miles, following the death of their previous governess the year before. Upon arrival at Bly, the country estate where the children's uncle has sent her to look after them, Miss Giddens soon settles in, but begins to suspect there is something sinister going on when the children start behaving strangely and weird noises are heard throughout the house. As she finds out more about the death of the previous governess and her lover, the valet, she becomes convinced that their spirits are still present.
One of the best things about this film is how it is extremely patient. It's not afraid to take its time and tell the story properly, building up the atmosphere before introducing any sinister elements. There are hardly any characters in the film, and the main focus is on Miss Giddens, the two children and the housekeeper Mrs Grose. Once the spookiness starts, it is minimal and builds. It starts off with the children acting ever so slightly strangely, then comes the eerie music, the whispers and other sounds, and finally the apparitions of the two deceased former staff at Bly.
The slow build up picks up pace as Kerr develops Miss Giddens before our eyes. Her prim and proper depiction of the character is matched by the righteous and religious nature she has, and the fact that a woman of her age is still unmarried in these times is something that is repeated in her treatment and judgment of the situation between the previous governess and the valet, one of improper relations and forbidden love. This has obviously had an impact on the children, and we are constantly reminded of this by their presence in the film, their innocence seeming to mask something a little more sinister although you only have a gut feeling shared by Miss Giddens to back this up.
The child actors do a fabulous job, something it's quite refreshing to see if I'm honest. Child actors are so often wooden and obviously false, relying on their cuteness for effect. Here though, the impact is generally with their acting, both verbal and visual. I was impressed with both of them, especially when Kerr was with them. There was a good level of chemistry between them all that I noted early on. There is also strong support from Megs Jenkins as Mrs Grose, an essential character in many ways - while her actions have no impact whatsoever, her existence as a sounding block and a source of information for Miss Giddens is essential, else we would have 100 minutes of confusion from the governess and some spooky noises and apparitions and little else. It's the explanation and clarity that this character provides.
Strongly directed, with clear build up to a dramatic ending, this is a powerfully delivered film with some cleverly woven scenes that means special effects are not necessary. Clayton is able to provide the necessary impact with reflection and the use of light and dark very effectively, especially with the long and short range camera angles. The mere existence of one character where they shouldn't be is powerful enough without movement or special effects, and the appearance and disappearance of another, at times slow and at others quicker, a face of a hand here and there, is well balanced for the scare factor. There are a few potential jumpy moments in here, and it's very well done indeed.
Simple and very effective in many ways, the solid acting and clever direction make this a joy to watch. I can't say it's a film I would watch again, but it's certainly one that deserves the accolades and praise it has received. Not one I'd recommend for younger children due to the scarier moments, but well worth a watch otherwise. Recommended.
I watched 'The Innocents' because I liked the sound of this black and white ghost story set in a lonely English mansion, the kind of film featuring dark stormy nights and candles suddenly blowing out. It turned out to be much more complex than a ghost story though and it has made me want to read the book. This film is based on 'The Turn of the Screw' by Henry James, and the screenplay was written by Truman Capote and William Archibald, with some minor changes to the original story.
Released in 1961, Deborah Kerr swishes about in skirts as big as the ones she wore in 'The King and I', playing the part of Miss Giddens, an inexperienced governess to two orphaned children, Miles and Flora. The children are so sweet at first but they start to get a little spooky, with Flora talking about dead people and the lovely spider that is eating a butterfly, and Miles calling her 'dear' as though he were a grown man. They also seem to share a sinister telepathy.
When Miss Giddens keeps seeing visions of the evil Mr Quint, a former servant who died under mysterious circumstances, and his abused lover, the previous governess Miss Jessel, who committed suicide out of grief, she starts to suspect the children are possessed by them. With her best intentions, the steps she takes to save the children end in tragedy. The ambiguity throughout the film concerns the question of whether the whole thing is in her mind or not.
There is a scene when Miles kisses Miss Giddens goodnight, on the lips, and he lingers there for an inappropriately long time. Miss Giddens is startled by this. At the end of the film, she kisses Miles and lingers for a long time in doing so. The implications of this film are quite disturbing because the couple that died are said by the housekeeper to have been so sexually rampant that they treated "rooms used by daylight as if they were dark woods". If the kids really are possessed by them, it is disturbing, and if Miss Giddens is merely projecting her own repressed sexuality onto a child, that is disturbing also. It is left up to your interpretation. Some people read quite a lot of sexual symbolism into this film.
Also starring is Michael Redgrave as the callous uncle who hires Miss Giddens to work at the mansion, Megs Jenkins as Mrs Grose the housekeeper, and Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens as the children. The director is Jack Clayton (The Great Gatsby, Room at the Top).
'The Innocents' is beautifully shot, and much more complex and meaningful than I had expected it to be. Something obviously is going on with those children, but then as Miss Giddens sits wringing her hands and repeating that she only wanted to save the children, not destroy them, things do not seem right with her. I can't image if this film were made today that it could be done without seeming pervy. It is the subtley of 'The Innocents' that makes it so transfixing. A real gem of a film.
(The DVD does have a number of extras like the original trailer and commentaries, but I haven't seen them.)
(This was meant to be a DVD review, but it turns out my DVD is an American import and therefore of little use to the UK consumer. I have no idea how I've come to own an American version without even noticing. Spooky...).
This is a very effective British film from 1961. It's an adaptation of Henry James' cerebral ghost story The Turn of the Screw. A new governess, Miss Giddens, is sent to look after two children, Miles and Flora, in a huge mansion in the country. The last governess took her own life following the death of her lover, the valet. Miss Giddens soon starts to experience supernatural happenings and develops some dark suspicions about the children.
There was a nice little tradition of spooky British movies beginning with Dead of Night in 1945 and ending with the BBC's Ghostwatch in 1992. The Innocents definitely fits into this tradition rather than the gaudier Hammer-style gothic. It's all spooky noises and suddenly glimpsed figures rather than gore and violence. As such, it manages to be scary (on occasion) in a way that most other films of its vintage don't. There are no special effects (another reason why it holds up well) and it successfully made me jump more than once with its simple but highly effective scare moments.
It's a film that isn't afraid to take its time - it only runs for 100 minutes, but nothing overtly spooky happens until half an hour in. It builds mood through the deployment of things like children humming, music boxes playing, sinister poetry readings, and very slightly indecent statuary. Needless to say, this is not like modern horror films, and the slowness may discourage audiences used to the likes of Saw. The ghostly manifestations themselves, although extremely well done and jolting, aren't gory or even particularly nasty - the shock is purely in seeing someone where there shouldn't be anyone. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, best to steer clear.
Another potentially off-putting element is the ambiguity. Right from the start we're encouraged not to trust Miss Giddens. An extra element of unease throughout the film arises from the possibility that she is imagining the whole thing and is actually causing more harm than good to the children. And the film takes a remarkably long time to resolve this. Miss Giddens is played by the late Deborah Kerr, giving a performance as tightly buttoned as her costumes. She's obviously more than a little neurotic, and given that she's too old to be still unmarried (at least by Victorian standards) it's easy enough to explain everything away as the result of her own sexual repression. Her fears of what's going on in the house - "Something secretive. And whispery. And indecent." - seem to be as much about sex as ghosts. Kerr is very good in the role, allowing the audience to have sympathy for someone who is fundamentally uptight and bigoted, but who might just be right (see also Edward Woodward in the Wicker Man).
The children, Flora and Miles, are played brilliantly by Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens. I normally dislike child actors, but they are more than up to capturing the ambiguities - they both have smiles that look both innocent and sinister at the same time and their behaviour is open to several interpretations. One of the ghosts is played by a silent but deeply malevolent Peter Wyngarde, some years before he became famous for other things. His sudden leer through a window at Miss Giddens is a great make-you-jump moment. The cast is rounded out by Megs Jenkins as Mrs Grose, the housekeeper who may know more than she's letting on, and Michael Redgrave as the children's dissolute uncle.
The music is a bit so-so, just rather old-fashioned incidental music. But the sound effects for the spooky parts are great: echoing giggles, unpleasant whispering, uncanny animal cries. The film is beautifully shot in black and white, with prowling camera movements and the same deep focus technique used in Citizen Kane, all of which keeps the audience on its toes. (The cinematographer, Freddie Francis, later worked on several David Lynch films and directed some less-than-distinguished horrors for Hammer and Amicus.) The film looks beautiful, even if touches like the constantly billowing curtains are perhaps a *little* overdone.
This has a 12 certificate. Although it's got some very scary moments (there's one manifestation in a lake that's wonderful) I doubt there's much that would bother a child of that age (or even a bit younger). There is a quite striking description of a sado-masochistic relationship, which I think inspired Michael Winner's prequel to this film, The Nightcomers (reputed to be absolutely terrible, but I want to see it). And there are some verging-on-the-indecent kisses between adult governess and young boy, which add whole new, weird layers to the already-perverse implications about what might be going on. But nothing's explicit at all - I suspect that it's quite a faithful adaptation of the original story, although I can't remember the story well enough to be sure. It has a very intelligent script; John Mortimer and Truman Capote both had a hand in it.
So a classy old ghost story that uses ambiguity to keep the audience off-balance. To my mind, an ideal Sunday afternoon film, but as I say, some will be put off by the old-fashioned approach to pacing. If it sounds like your thing, the DVD is available on amazon for about £15.