31 Nights, 31 Frights: The Innocents

In observance of that autumn spell when we celebrate the primal, compulsive instinct of fear, Rainestorm highlights 31 days of spooky scares to season the eerie atmosphere of Halloween.

Reign of terror: 1961

Deborah Kerr in 'The Innocents'

“I bit my lip… in FEAR!”

The horror… the horror: If The Haunting is the granddaddy of all haunted house movies, this is its godmother, the ultimate ghost story. Rather faithfully adapted from Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw, director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis photograph the grounds of Bly — the grand estate wherein the film takes place — in deep focus, enlarging it even further and increasing the aura of loneliness that pervades. The performances are all around spectacular. I doubt Deborah Kerr has ever been more beautiful as the sexually repressed governess, Miss Giddens, who oversees the two young orphans at the heart of the film. Acting almost exclusively from her facial reactions, she exquisitely alternates between fear, vexation, determination and shock. For their parts, Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens are wonderfully creepy as the oddball orphans in question, who may or not be who they seem. Clayton’s deliberately obfuscating direction allows for multiple interpretations. Is Miss Giddens going slowly insane at the expense of the children? Is the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, willfully ignorant to what is unfolding around her? Are the children hiding a dark secret or are they mere victims of Miss Giddens’ wild suspicions? There are so many exceptional sequences in the film, from young Miles’ return from school to the ominous game of hide and seek to the horrifying ending, The Innocents has been the unspoken inspiration for every good haunted house/ghost story that’s followed it.

Halloween haunt: The immense emptiness of Bly, immersed in deep, deep shadows at night. Spectral appearances occur through obscure panes of glass, behind flares of sunlight or through sheets of rain.

Tastiest treat: The horror on Miss Giddens face after Miles plants an inappropriately adult kiss on her lips.

Check the candy for: The fantastic Kate Bush song, “The Infant Kiss” is based on that scene.

Devilish discourse: “No, my dear, you don’t think I’m like any other boy. That’s why you’re afraid.”

Goes great with: The Others (2001). More loosely based on James’ story and anchored by Nicole Kidman’s and Fionnula Flanagan’s fine performances, this wonderful update eschews lurid and fatuous shocks in favor of unexpected frights and unnerving ambience.

  • Very nice blog/list you have here. The Innocents is a masterpiece, but it’s never included on these lists of horrifying films. I’m glad to see you give it its rightful due. You should check out Don’t Look Now if you haven’t seen it–another exceptionally disturbing British classic.