The Innocents (1961)
Obviously, any horror film that can consistently send chills up your spine throughout its runtime is a horror film worth watching. But when a film that is almost fifty years old accomplishes the same feat without ever seeming dated, it’s practically a must-see for any horror fan. In an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton has created a wonderfully eerie film full of chills, both obvious and subtle.
After their parents’ untimely deaths, young Flora and Miles are left with their callously indifferent uncle who employs a young woman (Deborah Kerr) to both care for the children and teach them in his absence. As Miss Giddens begins to get to know the children she begins to suspect a dark secret hidden in the sprawling mansion she is residing in. Her suspicions are confirmed after the children begin to act strangely, and she begins to see two ghostly figures around the house; a man and a woman. After discussing these sightings with the housekeeper, it transpires that the figures bear a striking resemblance to two members of staff that used to work at the mansion years ago.
As the children begin to act more and more out of character (all too evident in a disturbing scene between Miles and Miss Giddens), Miss Giddens tries to track down the story behind the mysterious figures; leading her down a road that will both, at the risk of sounding clichéd, risk her life and her sanity.
Everything about this film harks to an era in which subtlety reigned. Nothing is ever too blatant or obvious; every feature of The Innocents plays its part quietly, altogether forming something truly chilling. The acting is phenomenal (by Kerr and the children especially), and the score, whilst largely absent, proves extremely effective when it is used. One particular melody haunts me to this very day; I’m sure you’ll know it when you hear it.
Having been filmed in 1961, The Innocents has the great advantage of being filmed in black-and-white. Whilst some classic horror films seem very dated because of this very reason, the monochromatic cinematography gives the film a fantastic gothic feel; actually adding to the overall effect that the film produces rather than detracting from it.
What’s even more impressive are the myriad levels on which the film works. Superficially, it works well enough as it is. However, where it truly excels is how laden it is with subtext and metaphor. It stands just as much a work of art as it is a piece of entertainment, and thus can be appreciated both enjoyably and intellectually. Indeed, in the case of the latter, the film opens itself to a lot of discussion (and still does to this day), especially considering the plot’s ambiguity.
This is the type of film I believe is largely missing from mainstream horror nowadays; and that’s a shame. Films that are just as smart as they are scary. Films that lend themselves to discussion and debate. Films that don’t rely on shallow ‘jump scares’ to affect the audience but instead work slowly and quietly on their nerves. There have been a couple, but they’re few and far between. And that’s a shame, in my humble opinion.