Saturday, August 5, 2017


"It's time to speak of unspoken things...."
Ad tagline for Joseph Losey's Secret Ceremony (1969)

Ghost stories have always been a bit of a challenge for me. Not so much in literature, where my imagination is free to conjure up whatever horrors necessary to raise the hairs on the back of my neck and get the goosebumps tingling; but most definitely in film. There I find the visual medium’s gift for literalism is paradoxically at odds with the degree to which my imagination and mind's eye need to forget about how easy it is for move magic to create ghosts, yet how difficult it is for them to be made to appear even remotely scary.
Through the magic of special effects, films are ideally suited to granting vivid, tangible realism to even the most fanciful narratives; thus, the representational side of ghost stories—materialized apparitions, floating objects and the like—has always been well within the scope of where motion pictures excel. But too often in the attempt to provide solid scares, ghost story movies fall prey to an over-reliance on rote genre devices like loud noises, jump cuts, the scope of the ghost's powers, the grotesqueness of their appearance, and the malevolence of their actions. All standard suspense/horror devices which are fine in and of themselves, but in the supernatural realm tend to turn ghost stories into little more than paranormal stalker thrillers.

Since what has always creeped me out the most about ghost stories is the mere "idea" of ghosts—that the dead retain a presence and consciousness of life—the literal depiction of phantasms onscreen isn't enough to elicit much of a response from me. In fact, when it comes to ghosts in films, my personal experience has been that the more over-emphatic the visuals, the more muted their power to genuinely scare me.  
Authors and filmmakers tend to agree that the scariest, most vivid horrors take place in the mind. So, when a movie comes along that appears to have its priorities in order (revealing less, calling on viewers to use their imaginations more) and takes the time and effort to really mess with my head (allowing the visual aspects of the narrative to assert itself in service of, and in deference to, the engagement of the viewer's imagination); then I feel as though I’m in good hands.

When this occurs (as it frequently does in the thrillers of Hitchcock, Polanski, and Clouzot), I’m comfortable suspending my disbelief and surrendering to the full arsenal of cinema’s storytelling vocabulary—music, cinematography, performance, atmosphere, ambiguity, language—because it feels as though, in the formulating of the film as a whole, the director has already taken the active participation of the viewer into account.
In other words, in order for it to work, the film needs me to be alert and paying attention. All manner of information is hidden in plain sight on the screen, but the filmmaker who respects the symbiotic collaboration between artist and audience knows better than to hand me everything; he/she knows that my enjoyment of said film will be richer if I am trusted and called upon to discover things for myself.

To me, this is the hallmark of any well-made film, but when speaking of horror and suspense, it's absolutely essential. One film which accomplishes all of the above spectacularly, while also embodying the cinematic principle I call "the eloquence of ambiguity," is Jack Clayton's masterpiece The Innocents.
Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens
Martin Stephens as Miles
Pamela Franklin as Flora
Megs Jenkins as Mrs. Grose
Michael Redgrave as The Uncle

William Archibald’s 1950 play The Innocents adapted from Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw serves as the source for Jack Clayton’s decorously brooding 1961 film adaptation. This assured sophomore effort by the Oscar-nominated director of Room at the Top (1959) boasts a screenplay by Truman Capote and playwright/screenwriter John Mortimer (Bunny Lake is Missing), who contributed a few scenes and added a touch of Victorian verisimilitude to the dialogue.

And, indeed, the film's Victorian setting, with its demand for propriety and the appearance of order at all costs, is every bit a character in this ghost story as is the pervading presence of the tale's no-longer-living lovers. It’s a ghost story best whispered, a dark poem about past-lives lingering, and a solemn tale befitting the somber corners and shadowy hallways of a gothic mansion.
The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens; a naïvely pious governess dispatched to a remote country estate which she comes to fear is haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor (Miss Jessel) and a valet of bestial repute named Peter Quint. The illicit lovers both died under mysterious circumstances on the estate not long before, yet it appears to be their wish that their presence remain felt in the lives of the present inhabitants. Their spiritual presence is fearful enough, but compounding Miss Giddens' dread is the mounting certainty that the nature and intent of the haunting is the moral corruption of the two children left in her charge: angelic, guilelessly morbid Flora (Franklin), and charming, disturbingly mature Miles (Stephens).
The film’s slowly intensifying disquietude—the narrative turn of the screw—arises both out of uncertainty and ambiguity. There's uncertainty as to whether the children are truly the innocents they appear to be, or if in fact, wily co-conspirators in league with the phantoms. The Ambiguity relates to the possibility that the spectral terrors befalling Bly House are not real at all, but merely figments of Miss Giddens’ imagination; the fevered manifestations of an emotionally-repressed mind. 

More than just a faithful adaptation of a literary classic, The Innocents is a visually stunning elucidation of the novella's themes. Taking great pains to distance itself from the full-color, purple gothic of the then-popular Hammer series of horror films, this British production has pedigree and craftsmanship oozing like ectoplasm from every frame.
Filmed in glorious black and white which grows increasingly starker as the film progresses,
the cinematographer is two-time Oscar winner Freddie Francis (who has the dubious distinction of being the director of Trog, Joan Crawford's last film, and a horror of a different stripe). Atypically for the genre, The Innocents is shot in widescreen Cinemascope: a 20th Century-Fox prerequisite for its “A” productions at the time.  
From Jack Clayton’s perceptive direction to the affecting performances of its talented cast, everything about The Innocents: location, décor, and especially its use of sound and the innovative integration of electronic synth to its music score--has been done to capture the feel of James’ novel and remain true to its subtle horror.
Clytie Jessop as Miss Jessel
But if The Innocents succeeds at being a deliberately paced, restrained horror film, it’s far from being a passionless one. In fact, in its own buttoned-up, Victorian way, it's near-hysterical. When one takes the time to process just what Miss Giddens' suspicions allude to, or what's to be inferred by the strange relationship she shares with Miles...well, it's really rather astonishing. Especially when considering the age of the children and the fact that this was made in 1961. Even the ostensibly progressive 1971 film The Nightcomers (a The Turn of the Screw prequel featuring Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beacham as Quint and Miss Jessel) felt it necessary to lessen the shock value by making Miles and Flora considerably older.
The Kiss

The Innocents is a film I came upon rather late in the road, seeing it for the first time only a few years ago after several friends—learning of my newfound appreciation of Deborah Kerr—recommended it as both one of Kerr's finest films and the actress' favorite of all her performances.
I have a vague recollection of seeing part of The Innocents when I was a kid; a memory wedded in my mind with seeing  The Haunting on TV (a film I now see owes quite a lot to Jack Clayton) and concluding in both cases that, to my Creature Features-weaned mind, the movies weren't scary enough to hold my interest because “nothing happens.”
Peter Wyngarde as Peter Quint
Now, to my mature, weary of the Rob Zombie/Eli Roth School of horror-for-the slow-witted eyes, I realize nothing could be further from the truth. Catching The Innocents on cable TV, I was absolutely thunderstruck by what an exquisite exercise in terror of the mind it really is. I was especially impressed by how true to the nature of Henry James’ novella the film remains, maintaining the particulars of the ghost story and tone of Victorian repression, all the while interposing layer upon layer of menace, deviancy, and psychological dread in ways wholly cinematic and dramatically evocative.

I can’t remember when I’ve seen a more beautifully shot horror film (the edges of the frames are blurred, giving the impression of things hidden and lurking in corners), nor one with a screenplay so richly detailed in character and a sense of time and place. The real trick up The Innocents’ sleeve is its narrative ambiguity. It’s extremely skilled in establishing Bly House as a place of strange goings on, of encroaching decadence and decay, but just as deftly it hints that the principled, impressionable Miss Giddens might be something less than a reliable narrator.
Are the others unable to see, unwilling to see, or is there just simply nothing there to be seen?

The puzzle of the story is compellingly provocative and the whole film is shrouded in a disturbing sense of discordant interactions, but what cemented The Innocents as an enduring favorite (and made watching the film a genuinely frightening experience I was more than happy to repeat) is how its ambiguous structure played with my imagination just as deftly as the shadows and barely heard whispers in Bly House played with that of Miss Giddens. 

My youthful antipathy toward the work of Deborah Kerr really kept me from a lot of films I know I would have enjoyed immensely during my adolescence. This gross discrediting of the immensely talented actress is rooted in my first having become aware of her work through a series of late-career head-scratchers that hardly did her justice. It did me no favors to come to know of Deborah Kerr via the films Prudence and the Pill, Casino Royale, and Marriage on the Rocks. They may have been movies she enjoyed making, but to me, they established her as a charming but starchy British actress drawn to moldy sex comedies, and I thereafter avoided anything with her name attached to it. Bonjour Tristesse is the film that turned me around, followed by the glorious Black Narcissus, and now The Innocents—unequivocally my favorite Deborah Kerr performance. It's in fact, I consider it to be one of the most extraordinary screen performances I've ever had the good fortune to come across. 
Given how often I’ve watched The Innocents merely to see the play of emotions across Deborah Kerr’s face—some of the most complex appearing in almost imperceptibly brief flashes of brilliance—I, like Kerr herself, am convinced this film is her finest screen performance. With the entire film hinging upon the arc of Miss Giddens’ character: from empathetic voice of reason to irrational, possibly unstable fantasist; Kerr moors this ghost story in a gripping emotional realism.
With no dialogue specifically addressing the source of her character’s many “issues” (the fervency of her devotion to children, the cause of her troubled dreams, the austerity of her existence, her sexual repression/preoccupation) she makes The Innocents as much a film about the dangers of repressed desire cloaked in moral rectitude as it is about the corruption of innocence.

Deborah Kerr makes the movie for me, but the two child actors portraying Miles and Flora are beyond impressive. Both Pamela Franklin (the wondrous actress from Our Mother's House and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie making her film debut) and near-veteran Martin Stephens (Village of the Damned) credit their performances with the patience bestowed by Jack Clayton, but I think that’s only partially the case. These kids bring an incredible amount of creepy purity to their roles.
Kids in horror movies are meant to ratchet up the jeopardy-factor, but too often the reality is, in the casting, that they tend to be a pretty vacuous addition; vortices of irritation, sucking the energy out of perfectly good horror films. For the radiance of every Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed there are countless half-pint deadweights like the twin blank slates cast in The Other (1972); that annoying brat in Burnt Offerings (1976); the dyspeptic son-of-a-devil in the 2001 remake of The Omen; and worst-offender prize-winner, the noxious child in the TV movie version of The Shining, who had viewers praying for his REDRUM.
Compare the knowing and disturbing performances of Flora and Miles in The Innocents (Stephens managing to be also heartbreakingly touching) with their elongated, vacant-eyed counterparts in The Nightcomers, and you get a true sense of the enormous contribution Franklin Stephens' and Pamela Franklin's canny knowingness makes to the overall chilly effectiveness of The Innocents.
Purity Devoured by Evil

A testament to the richness of The Innocents’ ambitiously ambiguous structure is that its themes of innocence defiled and wholesomeness decayed extend to the enigmatic efficiency of its title.
Who are "the innocents"?
Taken literally, it refers most obviously to Miles & Flora, children whose innocence Miss Giddens fears has been robbed of them due to their exposure to the “indecencies” of Quint and Miss Jessel’s relationship. And, taking this tack, most certainly the sheltered Miss Giddens also qualifies as an innocent; not only due to her novice status as a governess, but born of her naiveté and misguided moral indomitability in the face of an evil she can scarcely comprehend. Even Miss Grose, with her determined refusal to entertain even the dimmest thought of anything untoward, represents innocence preserved through obliviousness.
Purity Decayed
A bug crawls out of the mouth of a garden cherub

I personally gravitate to a literal interpretation of the film’s title, but equally persuasive is the theory that The Innocents is meant paradoxically, like the ironic titles of Edith Wharton novels: The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. From this perspective The Innocents could allude to the Christian concept of original sin and how all acquired knowledge—carnal or otherwise—is essentially innocence lost. From the perspective that even the mere awareness of or exposure to evil represents a form of spiritual corruption, no one in the film qualifies as an innocent.

The self-interested uncle feigns no innocence, although his lack of full disclosure to Miss Giddens as to what truly transpired between Quint and Miss Jessel in his country home can be interpreted as the pretense of innocence in order not to lose her as a potential governess.
Miss Giddens’ innocence is called into question when one considers how her reaction to the uncle (obvious infatuation) is mirrored in her response to first meeting Miles. It has been suggested that her fervent devotion to children and lack of interests outside of their welfare, masks a repressed, embattled sexuality. Like many an overzealous “family values” politician, Miss Giddens is a mass of closeted desires and is unwholesomely obsessed with obscenity.
Mrs. Grose, the only adult in a position to be fully aware of what risk to the children Quint and Miss Jessel posed, nevertheless prefers to shun imagination, close her eyes in the dark, and meet everything she doesn’t understand with a dismissive "Stuff and nonsense.” A willful ignorance, and a means of shrouding herself in false, "blameless" innocence.
The question posed by the superficially benign behavior of the children is the one Miss Giddens asks herself: are they truly oblivious to the hauntings and all they have been exposed to, or do they merely pretend? Although we hate to admit it, children have a natural sexual curiosity devoid of an awareness of morality. When we insist on imposing moral imperatives, telling them such thoughts are wicked and wrong, it's not difficult to view such well-meaning "protective" behavior - introducing children to the concept of evil - as a corruption of their natural innocence.
Sharing Secrets

Owing to my having more practical, real-life experience with familial dysfunction than either ghosts or haunted houses, I like horror films that make a case for supernatural disturbances arising from emotional and psychological crisis. When I think of my favorite horror movies: Rosemary’s Baby, Burnt Offerings, The Shining, The Stepford Wives, The Omen, The Exorcist, and The Haunting--they all start with characters whose relationships and/or emotional states are already shown to be under some considerable stress.

Early on in The Innocents, it’s hinted that the very qualities characterizing Giddens as a suitable governess—single (and perhaps given to flights of romantic fantasy, “You do look pleased!” remarks Flora, noticing Miss Giddens’ reaction to receiving a letter from the handsome uncle), sensitive, morally devout, a strong love of children—are the very aspects of her personality which will later prove to be where she is most vulnerable.
The positive, sensual overstimulation she feels with her arrival at the manor (whose every corner of tranquil beauty also reveals an air of decay) turns feverish and detrimental only in proportion to what she learns about the children’s past and their relationship with Quint and Miss Jessel. As The Innocents reveals itself to be a ghost story, it also exposes its roots in Victorian repression; for one gets the distinct impression that for Miss Giddens, the materialization of the ghosts themselves is a horror, but one secondary to the real “evil” they represent: sex. 
It’s precisely this‒the subtle overlay of human sexual neurosis upon the supernatural‒ that makes The Innocents such a compelling and uniquely creepy viewing experience. A film so intelligent and artful in execution that it can end on a note that leaves the audience with more questions than answers, yet at the same time feel wholly and utterly satisfying. Brilliant movie.

Insights: The Making of "The Innocents" (2006)  Click HERE to watch the 30 min. documentary
Director Jack Clayton and Pamela Franklin behind the scenes during the filming of The Innocents

This speculative take on the events preceding The Innocents is vastly inferior and literal-minded, but as a curiosity (Marlon Brando's accent!) it's worth a look.

"More than anything I love children. More than anything."

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2017


  1. I completely agree, Ken. In a career of great performances this is Kerr’s best, and one of the great performances ever. Even when she’s sitting completely still she conveys so much with only a dart of the eyes or a tilt of the head.

    I also love how it gets the chill on right away with “O Willow Waly” sung in darkness for a full minute and then replacing the usual Fox fanfare. Had this ever been done before? Or at least up until then? I can’t think of anything else off the top of the head.

    My boyfriend, who has an appreciation for good horror movies, has never seen this and wants to. I told him we have wait until the fall, when it gets darker soon and the leaves are dying. And it has to be raining out—or preferably just damp and misty. Sorry, but those are the rules.

    1. Hi Max,
      Yes, you cite all the things that captured my imagination from the start. The titles are indeed very memorable and in my experience, I certainly haven't ever seen a film that allows almost a minute to transpire with only the soundtrack playing before the production logo shows up. It's positively eerie, and sets the audience up beautifully.
      And what you say about Kerr's performance is precisely what I keep coming back to: scene after scene you can train your eyes on her alone, and she is SO present. She listens and reacts in such small ways, conveying a great deal of inner reserve trying to hold on for dear life.
      I am in awe of what actors do. It seems like magic somehow. But when I see a performance like this, it REALLY gets me to thinking how incredible film is at picking up thought, and why so many stage actors say that is one of the biggest lessons they have to learn when making a film. Clayton keeps the camera on Kerr's face a great deal of the time. She's in full command of where the film is going. Just an outstanding performance.
      I think you are totally right in waiting for just the right time and atmosphere to share this movie with your boyfriend. Films like this don't come along every day. Why not go for the optimum experience? This is a film that deserves it.
      Thanks, Max!

  2. I had the distinct impression that you had already written about The Innocents, since I recall seeking it out after reading about it on here, but it must've been mentioned praisingly in the comments section for another entry on a Deborah Kerr film. The movie had been in my vicinity, so to say, ever since I got into Kate Bush as a teenager and heard her 1980 song The Infant Kiss, which is based on this movie (Bush’s work tends to be ’love it’ or ’hate it’ for people – I'd definitely recommend listening to the song if you're not familiar with it yet), but I only saw it for the first time within the last couple of years. I should definitely rewatch it, as I was really tired upon first viewing, and the biggest impression it left was an overwhelming sense of unease. I guess I wasn't ready for the way the heavy themes were handled – once again you've examined it all so very eloquently.

    A word for Kerr in general. My introduction to her was as a teenager in From Here to Eternity, and I guess the quality I most admire about her acting is that hard edge she has, a most rare feature for an actress of her era, and somehow a very modern characteristic. I guess its part of why her work still holds up so well (notwithstanding what you call the "late career head scratchers", her Casino Royale role being the worst offender in my eyes). It would be overly simplistic to believe it is simply a facet of a Brit's "stiff-upper-lipness", but it does make her distinctive among the Hollywood crowd of her time. Hollywood knew how to best utilize that underlying coldness, and she turned in many a great performance during her career.

    Jack Clayton surely was an interesting director. The Great Gatsby always comes to mind first (and a quiet frustration with it) when I hear his name, but looking at his filmography he really tackled quite a bit of ambiguous and/or challenging material during his long career. I shouldn't give him such a bad rap in my head.

    1. Hello, Callie
      I wanted to take a listen to "The Infant Kiss" before I responded,and...WOW! I can't thank you enough for bringing it to my attention. I have friends who are Kate Bush fans but I'm largely unfamiliar with her work. But this song is wonderful; very unusual and as strange as the scene it references. Had I known of it, Infant Kiss would have been the caption to the screencap I used. The song was so evocative I couldn't believe someone hadn't made an accompanying video, and so I came across a fan made one that apparently Bush approved of, for it features the sequence that inspired the song. (It's less a video that the entire scene played to the accompanying track)

      I like you assessment of Kerr's acting style, and you express very well what particular qualities stand out for you. I agree there is something very strong about her, yet it doesn't come off as starchy as Greer Garson or Irene Dunne (not personally fond of either) and she's not saccharine or pliable. her intelligence comes through.
      I saw her in some wartime film whose name I can't recall. She played a woman in the military, and there was just something so contemporary about her. She's everything I like about actors...very internal.

      And we're in accord when it comes to Jack Clayton. I always think of "Gatsby" first, and overlook some of his more interesting films "Our Mother's House" is a particular favorite. He does deserve better memory-credit than that one high profile fizzle.
      Thanks again for calling our attention to the Kate Bush song. I love that an artist was so inspired by this film to create something so eerily apt.

    2. Thank you for the Vimeo link! What a chilling effect, to have the two pieces combined like that! I think it works marvelously.

      Your memory of Kerr in a wartime film instantly brings to mind The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which I think was the first time she worked with Powell & Pressburger (of later Black Narcissus cooperation). She plays three different women in three different ages, and her timeless quality really works wonders in it. In the last section of the film she is a military woman in WWII, and the image of her in a uniform with her blazing red hair is quite striking. Could be another movie you're thinking about, but your description immediately conjured up Colonel Blimp for me.

    3. You're so welcome! I'm so happy to have been clued in to that song. The wartime film I vaguely remembered was "Vacation From Marriage," but I am now so curious about the one you described. I have another Kerr film to add to my list. It sounds wonderful.

  3. Another winner, Ken, in fact one of the best analyses I've read of this underappreciated classic. So many of your observations resound with me, and I've come to the conclusion that we must wait for a bit of maturity to fully appreciate an actress like Deborah Kerr. What you've written here and the comments of Max and Callie above (especially the discernment of the rarity of her "hard edge" - in men of the era it was just called "strength"!) express thoughts I've had about this Scottish treasure, but haven't articulated as well. That's one of the great joys of reading you and your commentators!

    Thanks, Mike

    1. Hi Mike
      You make an excellent point (in a number of ways) in simply labeling that quality Deborah Kerr possesses as "strength," for that is what it is, plain and simple.
      And perhaps this is why (at least for a time) Hollywood didn't know what to do with her when they weren't casting her as governesses (The King and I, The Chalk Garden) and flinty British types.
      For this reason I think you have something there in noting that perhaps there is something about her (her being full-grown woman, not a waif or girl) that it takes a certain level of maturity to appreciate. She's beautiful but not ornamental, and she has both vulnerability and strength. I certainly didn't appreciate her dimensionality, and any movie that would hide so much sheer talent under cookie-cutter "wife" roles (those films I first encountered) couldn't appreciate her either.
      Thanks for your kind words, Mike. Your own insights have contributed significantly to what so many tell me is an invaluably insightful supplement to my essays- the reader commentary. Much appreciated!

  4. Great analysis of the movie. I love especially Kerr's ability in going from devotion to near hysteria. The children were also incredible, I mean that scene where Miles recites a poem about a ghost rising from its grave while looking at his governess, that was just pure cinema.

    I think I was a bit like you, I never really gave Kerr to much credit, I liked her in Black Narcissus but to me the evil nun really stole her all the scenes. I really changed my mind with "Tea and sympathy" with all the gay subtext and Kerr's subtle portraying for a professor's wife, she really carried the movie on her shoulder.

    It's the first time I post a comment but just to say a big thank you for all your articles which made me discover a lot of great movies I had never heard of (Midnight lace for instance.)

    1. Hello, Ivar
      Your words are very kind and really make my day! I'm happy you have found the site, and happier still to know you've taken a chance on a film or two due to something you've read here. A first time "Midnight Lace" viewer, yet!

      Yes, The kids in this movie are truly a cut above. Aren't they? The scene you mention is one of my favorites. The little boy commands it like a seasoned veteran. And that look he gives her! I especially like how Miss Giddens and Mrs Grose are having totally opposite experiences at the exact same time. Mrs Grose hears nothing untoward in that creepy recitation, but Miss Giddens is aghast. It is indeed a sequence of pure cinema.
      And you too are another who took a while to warm to Deborah Kerr. She's so good in this, devotion to hysteria is a good description of her character arc.
      I haven't seen "Tea & Sympathy" in many years. I fact, I'm wondering now if I've ever seen it all the way through since the last time was way back before my Kerr conversion. Your writing about it makes me want to see it again.
      Much appreciate your choosing this film for your first comment, Ivar. Do feel free to share with us any other thoughts on films covered on this site. I often gain so many new insights myself from what I read in these comments. Had it not been for the input of readers, I never would have discovered this gem!
      Cheers, Ivar!

  5. Wonderful analysis Ken.
    Have you ever seen "The Sundowners"?
    It's another one of my favorite Deborah Kerr performances, but in a movie that too few people have seen. Robert Mitchum is very good in it too.

    1. Thank you, Joe. For helping to bring this extraordinary film to my attention. I haven't seen "The Sundowners" but I have already put it on my"must see" list. What a cast!

    2. You know what other movie has a great cast? The Phynx.

  6. Ken,

    Another great piece. You have it so right: ghost stories work best when they haunt you, not when they gross you out or shock you. The possible something glimpsed out of the corner of your eye can be far more effective than a jump scare. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes spooky movies work for me and, oddly enough, I found my answer in silent movie farce and 1950s epics. The three genres have a reputation for being over the top, both emotionally and physically, but they work best when they are tightly controlled and the more florid elements are held in check.

    I was watching the Ten Commandments a few weeks ago and I was struck how in the crowd scenes it seemed that each extra was given a definite action to do and no one was ad libbing. In the Golden Calf bit, there were a dozen little vignettes going on, from debauchery to condemnation of the sins. Everything was controlled and choreographed. In Land of the Pharaohs, the crowd scenes consisted of masses of people standing around or walking or waving their arms in the air to no real purpose. And don’t even get me started on the extras in Steve Reeves movies.

    I saw the same thing with farce. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are precise and controlled in their actions where things like the Mack Sennett comedies or some of the lesser clowns are just antic to little effect. After a while, for me anyway, each thrown pie gets less funny as the fight goes on. I found that The Innocents achieved so much spookiness with a flickering candle, a half obscured face in the window, or, and this is a truly haunting image, the governess standing in the lake’s reeds. I saw a tweet a few days that used that image and said “Distant ghosts are the best ghosts,” and, boy, I do agree!

    Everything in this movie is controlled and precise which just increases the impact of the unnerving, unsettling emotions. As you, and your commenters have pointed out, the acting is excellent throughout, and it is so well served by the production design and the sound design. The music box, the slightly muffled noises in the house, the snatches of distorted electronic music all add to the eerie experience. This is a truly haunting movie in every sense. Oh, and Max Frost, your first poster is right, The Innocents is best seen on a damp and misty night. Harsh rules but fair.


    1. Hi Michael
      Thank you, and I’m pleased you enjoyed the essay!
      Very interesting points you make (and with a rather brilliant use of examples) about how the degree of control a film exercises in its making - from performances to the myriad small details contributing to telling a story, impacts its overall effectiveness.
      THE INNOCENTS does strike me as a film made with a sure eye to what they are trying to achieve, and every detail works toward that end. Few filmmakers seem to get that it is often the inattention to the small stuff that can derail a film.

      A good many horror films die on the screen for me because they simply DO too much. They try to wring a response out of you. THE INNOCENTS, like ROSEMARY’S BABY does precisely what you describe; unsettles you by the subtle use of shadows, angles, sound, and subjective camerawork. Knowing what not to show is much more important than showing everything.
      I like the “Distant ghosts are the best ghosts,” quote. I feel the same.
      Maybe coe Halloween my partner and I will make a double feature evening of it and watch THE INNOCENTS and THE HAUNTING…I just hope it’s a damp and misty night.
      Thanks for your very thoughtful, thought-provoking comments!

  7. I saw this film for the first time just a few years ago (on TCM naturally). It was one of those films that I read about over and over again (even about the ending) but had never seen. So when I finally saw it, I felt some trepidation. It was just as good as I hoped with the kind of spooky ambiguity that I really enjoy. The scene with Deborah Kerr staring horrified at the eerily still figure of Miss Jessel across the pond sent shivers up my spine. (You have a capture from that scene). Deborah Kerr was just a great actress be it comedy, drama, or suspense. I agree that one of her best performances is here (I also liked her performance in Black Narcissus which you have reviewed.)

    1. Hi Ron
      I'm glad to hear your first viewing of THE INNOCENTS withstood all those years of spoilers and heightened expectations.
      I think the film is unique (and it's a testament to the performances, visual style, and direction) that elements of "surprise" factor very little in what makes the film so chilling. It's a ghost story that gets under your skin.
      And of course I agree, Kerr was an immensely talented, versatile actress. Thank you so much for reading this and sharing your thoughts on the film!