The Innocents (1961) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Martin Stephens, Pamela Fraklin, Clytie Jessop, Michael Redgrave
Director: Jack Clayton

In a parallel universe somewhere, 1961’s The Innocents wasn’t met with bemused grunts and faint praise, but immediately recognised as the classic it is, maybe even with a few Oscars coming its way.

Sadly, we don’t live in such a just universe and it’s only in more recent years that it’s got the credit it deserves, which is tragic, but it’s something at least. It’s a classy proposition, with a stellar cast, beautiful direction and cinematography bringing to life an excellent screenplay based on a great book. What could go wrong?

Well, nothing. At all.

Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is a governess hired to look after brother and sister Flora and Miles by their uncle (Michael Redgrave), who makes it very clear she is on her own with them (save the housekeeping staff) and that he doesn’t want to be bothered.

There’s something not quite right about the children though. They’re oddly precocious at times, with a very adult manner about them. In fact, their behaviour is downright odd and their secretive ways and occasional vision all start to unnerve the repressed Governess.

Eventually, she thinks she’s realised what’s going on- it’s not the kids being strange, it’s the fact that they are possessed by previous governess Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), and the drunken, disreputable valet Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), who’s abusive partnership lead to their deaths. Are they using the children to carry on their relationship from beyond the grave? Or is it all in Miss Giddens’ head?

It might take its time to get there, but The Innocents is a properly chilling film in ever respect. Drawing a loose adaptation out of Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn Of The Screw, screenwriters William Archibald and Truman Capote build a slow, brooding nightmare of a film, gradually increasing the tension, the paranoia and the overwhelming feeling of intense terror until it’s almost too much to bear. All while under the constraints of 1960s British cinema.

The cast are a huge factor in The Innocents effectiveness. As the children, Martin Stephen and Pamela Franklin are both superb, sweet and normal at times, but capable of switching with ease to the mannerisms of very intense adults, brimming with arrogance and barely concealed malice. Or are they?

As impressive as they are, it’s really the Deborah Kerr show. Her take on Miss Giddens is a masterclass in giving a subtle, layered performance. She’s a cauldron of sexual repression, with a morbidly vivid imagination, so Kerr plays her unraveling beautifully, chipping away her psyche piece by piece. At first in denial, then slowly suspecting before building up to full-blown hysteria in response to the horror that’s unfolding in front of her. You absolutely buy every bit of it though. It’s a truly magnificent performance from an actress at the peak of her powers.

The final piece of the puzzle is Jack Clayton in the directors chair with the great Freddie Francis behind the camera. Between them, the pair conjure up a visually stunning film, from the normal, everyday scenes that are beautifully framed and weighted, to the Gothic melodrama of Kerr running around darkened corridors in a nightdress with a candelabra, to the absolutely terrifying images of the dead couple that periodically appear, it looks remarkable at all times. Those latter scenes in particular, there’s so little to them and they’re invariably in broad daylight, but they’re the very stuff of nightmares and it’s to Clayton and Francis’ credit that they are so unforgettable.

The Innocents is that rare beast, a horror film that transcends the genre. There’s no cheap scares, lurid imagery or heavy-handedness to it. Instead, it just tells a tale, in its own time, showing you what you need to see and no more, while relying on the viewer to do the rest. It’s a masterpiece and a template for just what you can do with the Old Dark House format.

Rating: 5/5.

JULESAV The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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