As I’ve said before, I don’t consider myself a horror movie aficionado. However, over the last few years, I’ve found that my real issue is with the definition of horror itself. When I hear the word, my mind automatically jumps to slasher films and gross out humor. But, those assumptions are unfair to the horror genre which encapsulates so many others. There are fantastic classic horror films and Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents is one of them.
I was first introduced to this film at a movie night for a production company I read scripts for. I had never heard of it before and was amazed at the artistry behind the film. It was so detailed and oh-so creepy. I was reminded of it when I recently attended a screening of the upcoming film A Monster Calls at the Cinefamily theater. After the film, J.A. Bayona (the director) talked about the debt he owed to Jack Clayton, how much he was inspired by Clayton’s stylistic choices in The Innocents.
If you’re not familiar, The Innocents takes place in Victorian England and follows Miss Gibbons (Deborah Kerr), a governess who takes a post taking care of two little children in the country. She’s told by the orphans’ uncle (Michael Redgrave) not to bother him with any problems. In her first days with the children, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), appear angelic. However, Miss Gibbons starts seeing people who, to everyone else, aren’t there and we start to wonder: is everyone else crazy or is Miss Gibbons? Of course, drama and creepiness ensues…
Here are just a few reasons The Innocents needs to be added to your Halloween movie marathon:
Deborah Kerr is most associated with her roles in the movie-musical, The King and I as well as the classic war drama, From Here To Eternity. She had made by both those films by the time The Innocents came along and it was an entirely different role for her. Kerr said of her her role:
“I played it as if she were perfectly sane – whatever Jack wanted was fine; in my own mind, and following Henry James’ writing in the original story, she was completely sane, but, because in my case the woman was younger and physically attractive – Flora Robson had played her wonderfully on the stage – it was quite possible that she was deeply frustrated, and it added another dimension that the whole thing could have been nurtured in her own imagination.” – Kerr, TCM Article
Kerr carries the film with grace, purity and determination which is exactly why it’s so terrifying. We believe in her so completely.
The children are incredible but honestly, my big thought is what parent would let their child make this film?? I mean really – this is dealing with some pretty mature themes, to say the least.
Martin Stephens was just twelve years old, but had already been in quite a few films, including another horror classic, The Village of the Damned. He had also already been in a film with Deborah Kerr a few years earlier, Count Your Blessings. His performance as Miles is chilling and quite disturbing. He gave up acting in 1966 and ended up becoming an architect, but in the cult film community, he’s still beloved!
Pamela Franklin was eleven (and she could easily have played Eleven in Stranger Things). Unlike Stephens, The Innocents marked Franklin’s feature film debut. She went on to star in other films, most notably The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and another Jack Clayton film, Our Mother’s House. Her glee is what’s most unsettling in The Innocents. While weird shit goes down, she’s jovial! Like Stephens, Franklin ended up retiring from acting in the early 1980’s to have a family.
Megs Jenkins, a fantastic character actress, is also wonderful as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper who sort of, maybe believes Miss Gibbons.
Also a funny cameo: Michael Redgrave of The Lady Vanishes makes an appearance as the children’s cold uncle. Redgrave only has one scene but he makes an impression and let me just say, he’s a far cry from the charming romantic Gilbert.
The Innocents was based on an 1898 novella by Henry James called The Turn of the Screw. It’s been adapted several times over the years. It was adapted for the stage in 1950 by William Archibald and Truman Capote wrote the screenplay for The Innocents. Of the project, Capote said:
“When it was offered to me to do it as a film, I said yes instantly, without rereading it…Then I let several weeks go by before I reread it and then I got the shock of my life. Because Henry James had pulled a fantastic trick in this book: it doesn’t stand up anywhere. It has no plot! He’s just pretending this and this and that. It was like the little Dutch boy with his fingers trying to keep the water from flooding out – I kept building up more plot, more characters, more scenes. In the entire book there were only two scenes performable.” – Capote, TCM Article
I think it’s fascinating that a good portion of the plot was made up by Capote. To me, what makes the story so compelling is the ambiguity. By the end of the film, you’re still not sure what’s true and I love that! It’s really, at its heart, a psychological thriller. Story wise, it actually reminded me of films like The Lady Vanishes and So Long at the Fair. Both have our protagonists facing a situation that makes them question their reality and this one, being supernatural, is even more troublesome…
At the time Jack Clayton made The Innocents, he had only just made his feature directorial debut, Room at the Top. So much of what makes this film a masterpiece is due to Clayton’s direction because the true stars of this film are the performances. The strength of Franklin and Stephens performances had to be the product of great direction.
Additionally, Clayton’s use of sound in this film is worth marveling at! The sounds, at times, seem more important than the visuals – a door slamming shut, the awful cries of a ghost, the children’s laughs…these are the things that kept my heart racing.
The visuals cannot be understated in this film. Freddie Francis served as the film’s DP. If you don’t know his name, you’ve certainly seen his work in films like The Elephant Man, Cape Fear and The Man in the Moon. Francis had already worked with Clayton on Room at the Top. Francis said of his work in the film:
“…I had quite a lot of freedom, and I was able to influence the style of The Innocents. We worked out all sorts of things before the picture started, including special filters. I still think it was the best photography I’ve ever done – as much as I like Sons and Lovers  I think The Innocents was better, but you rarely get an Academy Award for a film that isn’t successful no matter how good your work on it.” – Francis, TCM Article
Georges Auric wrote the score of the film, including the original song “O Willow Waly” and it is a huge reason why the film works. Auric also wrote the scores for Roman Holiday, the French version of Beauty and the Beast and The Wages of Fear. It’s fantastically creepy!
It’s unsettling, thought-provoking, and filled with artistry!
This film was not very well received by critics when it was released in 1961. But, as with a lot of films, time has proved it a classic. When you look at the time this film was made and the themes it explored, it’s quite scandalous. Even now, the whole kissing scene between Kerr and Stephens is out there!
What I love about this film is that it keeps you on the edge of your seat and doesn’t give you all the answers. The Innocents is very much left up to the imagination. It engenders discussion and makes you feel something. In the end, what else is cinema’s purpose?
Vintage trailer below:
Feature photo and gifs property of Twentieth Century Fox.