Based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents (1961) is a film that addresses themes of corruption and repressed sexuality as it delivers an atmospheric ghost story...maybe. Events throughout leave both the characters and the audience in doubt as to what's real and what's not, right up until the film's ambiguous ending. As a viewer, what you make of The Innocents is entirely up to you, though your interpretation may correlate to the question posed early on in the proceedings: do you have an imagination?
Though at a more advanced age than one would expect for a first-time governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is enthusiastic about the prospect of caring for young Miles (Martin Stephens, Village of the Damned) and Flora (Pamela Franklin, The Legend of Hell House) at the vast country estate, Bly, owned by the children's disinterested uncle (Michael Redgrave).
Nothing at Bly is as it seems, however, and there is a pervading sense of dread and decay despite the bright, sunny appearances: Flora sings sweetly, but the lyrics to "O Willow Waly" reveal that she's singing about a lover dying alone, heartbroken; Miles seems the picture of polite charm, but he's been expelled from school for "corrupting" other students; birds that chirp gaily during the day cry out in pain during the night; white roses throughout the house fall apart at Miss Giddens's touch. Perhaps the most telling example of "evil beneath the surface" occurs as Miss Giddens gazes at a statue in the garden, when a large black beetle crawls out of the smiling face of a child.
Soon enough Miss Giddens begins to see the ghostly figures of a man and a woman around Bly. No one else confesses to seeing the apparitions- do they exist at all, or are they merely the product of Miss Giddens's over-active imagination? Regardless, the story of the phantom inhabitants begins to unfold: the man is Peter Quint, the uncle's valet, Miles's hero, and by all accounts a twisted and cruel man in life. The woman is Miss Jessel, Quint's lover and the children's governess. After Quint was found dead on the grounds of the estate, Miss Jessel came down with a serious case of "mad grief" and died shortly thereafter. Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the spirits of the dead lovers are possessing Miles and Flora, and she takes it upon herself to save them: "All I want to do is save the children, not destroy them. More than anything I love children. More than anything."
The Innocents never lets on as to what's really going on at Bly. Is Miss Giddens really saving the children from corruption, or is she the one corrupting them? Are there sado-masochistic ghosts roaming the halls and grounds of the estate, or is the sexually repressed Miss Giddens simply overtaken by stories of the wild and terrible lovers? As there are no definitive answers to any of these questions, it's up to the viewer to interpret everything that's laid out during the film- an approach that's sure to frustrate folks who want everything tied up in a neat package. I'll admit, when the film was over I had a bit of that "Wait...what? So is...wait, that's it?" feeling; it's always a shock when horror films make you do some work and make you think. Undoubtedly, The Innocents is a movie that rewards repeat viewing.
Technically, the film is nothing short of exquisite. The performances are pitch-perfect, the cinematography by Freddie Francis is lush and gorgeous, and somehow everything in the film feels essential to the proceedings. Director Jack Clayton and writer Truman Capote ensure that there are no extraneous shots or dialogue in the movie.
Though The Innocents surely draws comparisons to its contemporary ghost story, The Haunting, it's far less flashy than Robert Wise's film...which is an unusual statement considering how unflashy The Haunting is. What I mean, I think, is that I connected to The Innocents on a cerebral level more than a gut level- most likely The Innocents won't leave you cowering beneath your blankets in fear, but nonetheless it's an unsettling film that burrows deep into your brain.
You know, like that worm thing in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. After all, what higher praise is there for a film?
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