Director: Jack Clayton
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Megs Jenkins, Peter Wyngarde, Michael Redgrave, Clytie Jessop
Plot: Miss Giddens (Kerr) has just accepted a job to be the governess of two orphans,a brother and sister on a large estate in the country. Once she arrives at the house she develops immediate rapport with the duo, but it isn’t long before she is seeing things, hearing things, and questioning the innocence of the children.
Quite why anyone, ever, would want children is beyond me. Just watching horror films clearly outlines the dangers of what any parent is facing. Murderous, sinister, smug, are just three ways I would describe kids, and because they are so young, you can’t just start thrashing them because you’ll end up the villain. How scary is that?
Just reading the plot of THE INNOCENTS, you will no doubt be comparing it to a number of other films. Most of which were probably influenced by this classic. It’s simple in terms of story, but complicated in its construction of horror and themes. Whichever interpretation you make of the film, will result in you finding new ways to be terrified and paranoid. Opening with a jet black screen and a child singing spooky unsettling lyrics before the 20th Century Fox logo even appears, makes for a disturbing beginning, and I’m not even sure what is going on yet.
It seems like your average haunted house film to begin with, as women in long black dresses seem to float through poorly lit corridors and we hear laughing and hushed voices coming from empty rooms. As Miss Giddens (Kerr) is a newcomer to the estate, she at first questions what she has seen, and what she puts down to stress and unfamiliarity, soon transforms into her doubting her very sanity. It’s a simple but identifiable plot device. After all, we all know what it’s like not to be believed, and the more we focus on such incidents the more frustrated and certain we become. There are even times when we subconsciously alter our previous stories to make them seem grander and more palatable. The paranoia can really set in when around children, as who isn’t going to believe those darling little cherubs?
As the film progresses it becomes apparent, at least to our protagonist and by default us, that perhaps the children aren’t THE INNOCENTS they seem to be. Laughing maniacally at the top of the stairs doesn’t help their cause, but it’s clear they have been shaped and formed from their own environment. The children constantly do childish things, but the way in which Giddens responds to those actions means they suddenly seem like a genuine threat; a boy standing outside at night with no shoes on, an innocent kiss on the lips that lingers for a bit too long. These are events that could easily be shrugged off, but due to how the film is shot and suspense is built, they are very unsettling moments.
There are many ways in which this film can be read. Giddens may be as mad as a hatter and suffer from paranoid delusions. Perhaps the children Miles (Stephens) and Flora (Franklin) are up to something, and have been for some time. There have certainly been a number of deaths on the estate before. Could it be that there really are ghosts and the children are possessed by the ex-lovers of Quint (Wyngarde) and Jessel (Jessop)? These questions create a maddening (in a good way) narrative that makes us feel the confusion of Giddens herself.
The estate itself is quite a terrifying site to behold. The grounds are filled with lakes and streams that are perfect for unclear reflections to appear, and around every corner is a statue with vacant eyes. Shot in gorgeous black and white, cinematographer Freddie Francis used so many lights that Kerr had to wear sunglasses between takes and Francis was jokingly accused of trying to burn down the studio. This excessive lighting incorporated by Francis lead to crisp and clear visuals which still look pristine today. Director Clayton mostly avoids easy jump scares, but does leave shadowy figures in the background which creep up on characters without the use of sudden loud noises. But scariest of all is Martin Stephens as Miles. He really could be an adult in a child’s body, whether due to possession or because of the things he has been exposed to. This makes him an intellectual and physical threat. At least I think it does. Maybe I’m just as paranoid as Giddens herself.
Horror Highlights: Creepy kids, tales of death, an attic with a toy clown and a music box that plays a melancholic tune. Scariest of all is not knowing the truth behind the actual events and who, if anyone, is evil.
Best Scare: Miss Giddens decides to walk about the house in her nightdress with a candle to light her way. As she moves around the halls she hears whispers, then laughing, then at the same time. Before long the sounds are so loud and disorientating she panics and runs before coming face to face with a dark and disturbing statue.
We’ll have another terror for you tomorrow at THN and you can view them all here.