Ambiguity in film can be one of the hardest things to pull off successfully. Unlike in literature where the novelist has the potential use of internal monologue and an assorted bag of writers’ tricks to hand, in a film you are presented with the ultimate problem that at some point you have to put something on the screen. THE INNOCENTS contains one of those cinematic images that is burned onto my retina and it is extraordinary because the viewer is forced to question what they are seeing as much as the story’s central character, the highly-strung governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr). It is a simple wide shot of an ornamental lake in the grounds of stately Bly house on a grey afternoon pouring with rain. Through the mist, amongst the reeds near the opposite bank we see the terrible figure of a woman in black seemingly standing on the surface of the water. The woman is, we have been led to believe, the previous governess of Bly, Miss Jessel, who drowned herself a year ago. Every time I watch this unsettling scene I find myself leaning forward and peering into the screen to try and make sense of what I am seeing. We discover that Jessel took her own life after the death of her lover Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the coarse and aggressive valet to the master of Bly. The master is responsible for his young niece and nephew, Flora and Miles, after the death of their parents but does not wish to be involved with the raising of children, keeping them isolated in his country estate whilst he resides in town. The newly-arrived Miss Giddens begins to suspect that the spirits of Quint and Jessel not only haunt the grounds of Bly but are attempting to possess the bodies of the children who were so attached to them in life.
An adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn Of The Screw, Jack Clayton’s film had a succession of impressive names attached to the screenplay over the course of its development. From its beginnings in the form of William Archibald’s stage adaptation The Innocents, Harold Pinter, John Mortimer and finally Truman Capote all had a hand in the finished product. It was Pinter who advised Clayton against the use of flashbacks, arguing that to show Quint and Miss Jessel before their deaths would diminish the power of the “ghosts”. John Mortimer inserted scenes with the uncle returning to Bly and the family attending a cricket match in the village, but these were promptly removed by Capote to keep the action firmly restricted to the house, ratcheting up the claustrophobic tension. The finished screenplay belongs principally to Capote, who brought an atmosphere of Southern Gothic to an otherwise quintessentially British production. It was he who added the decaying grandeur of the house and its vast gardens of marble statues infested with beetles, as well as the Freudian undertones to the relationship between Miss Giddens and Miles which have probably led to the film actually increasing in shock value since the sixties. Clayton’s direction and the cinematography of Freddie Francis deliver a master class in how to transfer a ghost story to film: there are numerous horror movies staples at work here that have probably never been bettered in execution. When Deborah Kerr walks the corridors of the house in the dead of night with a flickering candelabra the edges of the screen are completely black, like we’re peering down a tunnel of dim light. Notably, whenever we see an image of Quint or Miss Jessel it is always preceded by a shot of Miss Gidden’s reaction, not the other way around as in most horror movies, leading us to question whether we’re seeing something that’s really there or seeing through her eyes as she becomes more paranoid and afraid. Every detail is perfect: at the beginning of the film even the traditional fanfare over the 20th Century Fox logo is missing, replaced by Flora’s eerie song. “Creepy kids” is another horror movie staple but the performances that Clayton extracts from his two child actors (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin) are astonishing. Everyone remembers the girls from THE SHINING (1980) but the director does far more here than get children to stare blankly into the lens: in one scene he might have us thinking that the children are communing with the devil himself, in the next they are fragile, vulnerable babies being terrorised by a deranged governess with no one else around to help them.
Traditionally, haunted house films had always been viewed as campy run-arounds: equal parts comedy and horror. Vincent Price or Abbott and Costello were probably mugging in the pantry. Even the darker efforts like James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) play as many scenes for laughs as screams. I am struggling to think of a horror film made before 1961 that takes itself as seriously as THE INNOCENTS (the obvious exception is PSYCHO (1960), which is also a kind of haunted house film), but the decision to tone down the melodrama and eliminate the comedy pays off. Why? Because it’s terrifying.