The Innocents (Twentieth Century Fox, 1961)

 

This adaptation of the classic Henry James novel, The Turn of the Screw, is a fascinating look into the psychology of a young English governess confronted with visions of the other world. Deborah Kerr plays a young woman who answers an ad for a governess position at the London home of the uncle (Michael Redgrave) to children Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). His one rule is that the position requires assuming complete responsibility; he must not be bothered with information about the children under any circumstances. This admittedly strange beginning merely paves the way for one of the eeriest ghost stories ever put on film.

As soon as she arrives, things start to get weird. Flora seems to know that brother Miles will be coming home soon, though his school term is not over. A letter arrives stating that he has been expelled from school for some unspecified wickedness. However, he appears just as cherubic as Flora, so the governess dismisses it.

During a game of hide-and-seek, she sees her first ghost, a woman, in the hallway. Then she sees a man looking down from the top of the tower, but finds only Miles feeding birds. When she asks the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), about the sightings, she says they fit the description of the late estate manager, Peter Quint, and his lover, Miss Jessel, the previous governess. The couple were very close to the children, and so the governess begins to believe that the children are being possessed. She sees the ghosts more frequently, often with one of the children, but the children will not admit to seeing them. So, she takes it upon herself to save the children's souls from "these horrors."

Whether the governess really sees the ghosts or is merely hallucinating is left refreshingly vague. This was reportedly Henry James' original intention, and director Jack Clayton chose to maintain this approach. Deborah Kerr gives a credible performance: Whether her character sees the apparitions or not, she believes that she does, and her slow descent into saving the childrens' souls at any cost is marvelously done. The ending is a stunner. Also, the child actors in films like this are often the weak link, but Franklin and Stephens hold their own with the fantastic Kerr.

A lot of press at the time of the release of The Others mentioned this film as an inspiration, usually unfavorably, as if The Others was merely a remake. However, The Innocents is a very different film despite the many surface similarities and should definitely be seen on its own terms, as the masterpiece of psychological gothic horror that it is.

 

[Craig Clarke]