October 1, 2012

The Innocents (1961)

"A young governess for two children becomes convinced that the house and grounds are haunted."

It's October! Once again Hallowe'en is on its way and all the horror movie bloggers are frantically scratching around for something to write about. Not me though. I already have my October viewing list sorted out, and I will be bringing you another 31 days of supernatural terror. Wooooo! Ghosties!

Starting off my "Hallowe'en Countdown" is one of oldest ghostie films which is still worthy of rewatching. Having already reviewed "The Haunting" (1963) and "The Uninvited" (1944), it was time to pull "The Innocents" (1961) out of "The Vault". If you are lucky enough to have cable, according to the TCM monthly schedule, all three movies will be shown back-to-back on Wednesday, October 10th with "The Innocents" actually at 3.30am on Thursday morning so you don't even need to buy it.

Based on "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James, Jack Clayton's version of "The Innocents" has become the best-regarded adaptation of the classic 1898 ghost story. It wasn't the first, however, as there was also an opera and a live television play directed by John Frankenheimer two years earlier. For all of you who hate remakes, "The Innocents" was a kind of remake, but it was a considerable improvement over the TV movie which you can watch clips from on YouTube. Not to belittle Ingrid Bergman's performance, Deborah Kerr is simply much better in the role as a governess.

It probably helps if you haven't seen Deborah Kerr in anything else if you want to fully appreciate her in "The Innocents". Having previously played a nun in "Black Narcissus" (1947) and a governess in "The King and I" (1956), her portrayal of Miss Giddens is occasionally little more than a logical fusion of the two. It's not that she was a bad actress, but as a product of the time, she was a bit limited. The very dated and "Victorianised" dialogue didn't exactly help matters much there either.

Some younger viewers will undoubtedly find the talkiness of this production rather boring in places. At times, I actually found it all to be quite awkward and cringeworthy myself especially with all the clippy-clop, posh English accents. Although I still appreciate "The Innocents" as a ghost story, it lacks realism even considering the period that it was set in. Trust me, I'm English, and I can't imagine anyone speaking like that ever in real life without getting a punch in the throat.

The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, comes across as the much more credible character due to Megs Jenkin's Northern accent which slightly lessens the jarring quality of the words she speaks. Being no stranger to horror movies since appearing in "The Monkey's Paw" (1948) and going on to "Asylum" (1972), it was no great surprise that Dan Curtis of "Dark Shadows" fame got Megs Jenkin to reprise her role as Mrs. Grose for his own TV movie adaptation of "The Turn of the Screw" (1974).

Staginess aside, the little kids, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), are also really outstanding and genuinely creepy. If, like me, you don't like kids anyway, you can see the evilness behind their fa├žade of innocence which was either brilliant acting or just something naturally horrible about children. A couple of scenes of animal cruelty really made me hate them. There are even suggestions of incest and paedophilia which are downplayed almost to non-existence, but they still deliver some shocking stuff especially in the case of the obviously psychopathic Miles.

The ambiguities raised by the story don't just stop there. In a big change to the novel, it is never truly explained if the ghosts and possessions are real or just in Miss Gidden's head. As much as I prefer the supernatural explanation, the fact that her character seems to be a sexually-repressed "old maid" (for lack of a better term) has tempted numerous essay writers into psychological analysis of her character and her apparent nervous breakdown throughout the movie. Make no mistake about it, "The Innocents" has some very adult elements which were explored further (and rather poorly) ten years later in Michael Winner's "The Nightcomers" (1971).

If you want scares, Freddie Francis' cinematography almost provides enough black and white creepiness on its own without the more startling scenes. I rewatched "The Innocents" during a gloomy and rainy afternoon and, not to put too fine a point of it, pants were nearly shat several times. I say "nearly" because the timing is occasionally a bit off, and I'm too hardcore to really be frightened by anything in a movie.

I still highly recommend "The Innocents" to anyone who loves ghost stories or who loves analysing characters afterwards. While not quite Hitchcock, there's a lot more depth to "The Innocents" than most horror (and proto-horror) movies from the 1960s.

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