The Innocents (1961) Review

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

The Innocents (1961) Review

Horrorific content by Jessica Gomez on June 26th, 2020 | Movie Review | Possession, Supernatural, Classic Horror, Madness, British

A governess is sent to care for two orphans, and she begins to unravel as she experiences supernatural phenomena.

The Innocents was directed by Jack Clayton and stars Deborah Kerr (from Eye Of The Devil), Michael Redgrave (from Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde), Megs Jenkins and Peter Wyngarde.

Apparitions? Evils? Corruptions?

As we all remember in A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Innocents begins with a young girl singing an ominous song that we hear several times throughout the film. It’s an eerie opening scene, but gear up, because it’s about to get much, much creepier.

Jack Clayton’s first horror film, a cross between the psychological and the supernatural, set the bar for gothic ghost stories. Truman Capote’s script, the first of many adaptations of the novella The Turn of the Screw (including the nowhere-near comparable The Turning released earlier this year), went to even darker places than were explored in the original story.

Miss Giddens, a governess (a live-in teacher and caretaker) is hired by a man to look after his orphaned niece and nephew, Miles and Flora. She is on edge from the start - this is her first position, and the preceding governess died under unusual circumstances. She’s put at ease when she arrives at the beautiful and vast estate, where the staff and Flora seem charming and helpful - but it isn’t long before the staff’s slips of the tongue and Flora’s odd comments start to bring back her apprehension.

From almost the start, Miss Giddens begins to see apparitions, though no one else in the house will say if they believe her. She’s unable to ascertain if it’s her mind playing tricks on her, or if something supernatural is at play. The kids’ increasingly strange and violent behavior leads Miss Giddens down a dark path that convinces her that the children are possessed by former staff members who have died, the spurns of which become quite advanced after Miss Giddens learns of the staff members’ deviant sexual past. Learning of their perverse acts triggers Miss Giddens in some way, and she turns from a harmless caretaker to a predator, while blaming the children for her own buried proclivities.

I am admittedly not a huge fan of black-and-white horror films, but the style served this movie well for its mood. The camerawork is critical for understanding the characters’ feelings and motivations in each scene. Using light, darkness, close shots, and adept camera movement, Freddie Francis created an atmosphere that is second to none. The daytime scenes, to me, are scarier than anything we see at night. 

It’s clear that modern gothic horrors such as I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and Crimson Peak are heavily influenced by The Innocents, and only The Others has come close to being so chilling - but none are as cinematically exceptional. Rife with symbolism and metaphors for sexual repression and demoralization, Miss Giddens is conflicted between keeping the children “innocent”, and pushing them to the boundaries of their supposed possessions.

The film begins with stiff, proper acting one would expect from an English film in this era, but Deborah Kerr’s descent into madness is completely engrossing. The children are impressively ghoulish, which makes all the difference in this film’s lasting impact. But most compelling are the complexities of the characters. The children at times act their age, engaging in silly arguments and mischief, and at others are quite mature as they hone in on the darkness that comes from living without a parental figure. Mrs. Grose is hardworking and kind, but her loyalties are only to the children and the house, so we never know if she can be trusted. Miss Giddens is at first doting yet insecure as a teacher, and though she’s frightened of the apparitions she’s seen, she is confident and has no problem relaying the information. It’s only halfway through the film that we begin to see her truly unravel, and it’s clear that there’s some unknown, underlying reason why - though it seems that she may have experienced a sexual trauma as a child that she is living out through this ghost story. But the song that Flora sings lends credence to the governess being right about the ghosts’ presence at the estate. Ambiguity at its finest.

Worth Watching? 

Yes. There’s a reason The Innocents regularly makes Best Horror Films of All Time lists. Free from jump scares, gore, and monsters, this film relies only on story, characters, and atmosphere - and that is all it needs to still scare and disturb us, sixty years later.

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