The works of certain horror writers just beg to be turned into motion pictures. The classic works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft make great movies, as do the books of more modern scribes like Richard Matheson and Stephen King. And then there’s Henry James. Often thought of as the father of the psychological ghost story, James didn’t allow himself to be pigeonholed into writing strictly horror. Because of this, he is not generally thought of as being an icon of the genre, but his The Turn of the Screw is inarguably one of the most frightening tales ever committed to paper. The novella has been filmed numerous times since its 1898 publication, but the most memorable adaptation is the 1961 version directed by Jack Clayton (Something Wicked This Way Comes), simply called The Innocents.
The Innocents begins with Miss Giddens (From Here to Eternity’s Deborah Kerr) taking a position as a caretaker to two young children who live on a sprawling country estate. Upon arrival, she meets the children, Flora (The Legend of Hell House’s Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens from The Witches and Village of the Damned), as well as the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins from Asylum). Things around the estate get spooky when Miss Giddens begins to see a pair of strangers, a man and a woman, wandering around the property. While playing hide and seek with the kids, Miss Giddens ends up in the basement of the main house where she finds a picture of the man whom she has seen stalking the premises. Mrs. Grose identifies the man as Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde from Flash Gordon), a valet that worked for the family before he died. The conversation turns to Miss Giddens’ predecessor, Miss Jessel (Nightmare’s Clytie Jessop), who drowned herself in the lake when she became distraught over Quint’s death. Miss Giddens believes that she has been seeing these two ghosts around the house and, with Flora and Miles behaving more erratically every day, Miss Giddens begins to believe that Quint and Miss Jessel have returned from the grave to possess the children. Miss Giddens has to figure out a way to stop the spirits from taking the children while hoping that the whole thing is not just in her head.
When timeless Hollywood ghost stories are discussed, The Innocents deserves a place in the conversation right next to The Haunting, The Amityville Horror, and What Lies Beneath. Although it is an adaptation of Henry James’ story, American screenwriter Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) based much of the script on the play “The Innocents” by William Archibald (I Confess), also adapted from The Turn of the Screw. John Mortimer (“Brideshead Revisited”) was brought in help make the dialogue sound more Victorian, thus giving the film a more British quality. Although it starts as a typical ghost story, the film slowly transforms into a spooky possession movie as it progresses. The events of the film are somewhat vague, particularly around the ending, but not in a bad way; there is an ambiguity in the movie that leaves much of the outcome up to the interpretation of the viewer. The Innocents is a great example of a subtle, understated horror film that is still able to shock the audience.
With The Innocents being a horror movie made in Britain in the early sixties, comparisons to the gothic Hammer Horror pictures is inevitable and, no doubt, there are some similarities. The Innocents was shot primarily at Sheffield Park in East Sussex, and the film makes liberal use of the cold, gothic structures. Nevertheless, Clayton enlisted the help of cinematographer Freddy Francis (The Elephant Man, Dune) to help give the film its sharp, distinct look, deliberately trying to not look like a Hammer film. Francis used plenty of bright light in order to give the picture a more realistic, less cartoonish tone. Francis also kept plenty of space between his characters, emphasizing the emptiness between them. Add in the spooky buildings of the estate and the first rate performances from the cast, and The Innocents is a better ghost story than Hammer ever made.
Most of the creepy moments and images in The Innocents center on the children. Towards the beginning of the film, Flora breaks from saying her prayers to innocently ask Miss Giddens if “some people don’t go to Heaven and are left to walk the Earth.” Later, when Miss Giddens is talking with Miles about what he wants to be when he grows up, he says that there is “nothing I want to be, except what I am now, a boy.” The delivery of these two lines is packed full of both symbolism and foreshadowing, letting the viewer know that something supernatural is to come. Once the possession starts taking hold of the children, things get even eerier. In one famous scene, Miss Giddens is putting Miles to bed and he sits up and kisses her. The kiss is not a chaste, motherly kiss; it’s an adult kiss, passionate and directly on the lips. Later, as Miss Giddens is having a confrontation with Miles, he laughs the laugh of a full grown man, and Miss Giddens sees Quint’s face peeking through the window behind him. Because of their purity and innocence, children in horror movies are always good for some creepy moments, but the kids in The Innocents get truly frightening without being villains themselves.
The visuals in The Innocents are only half the story; the score, written by Georges Auric (The Wages of Fear), is an essential part of the experience. The film opens with a haunting song, written by Auric and Paul Dehn (who wrote some of the later Planet of the Apes movies), being sung over a completely black screen. This musical motif stalks the film from beginning to end, being played by music boxes and sung by children. Eventually, in an expert use of music and sound by the filmmakers, the tune gets mixed in with the whispering windy sound effects so the audience can’t tell if it’s actually being played or if the music is being imagined. Just to keep the score honest, it also boasts moments of Psycho-like stabby violin stingers during the sections of the film that need a little punch. Auric’s soundtrack to The Innocents is one of the unsung classics of horror movie music.
Henry James will never be as well known as Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft, but he has left just as big of a mark on the world. The Innocents deserves a place right next to The Black Cat and The Dunwich Horror in the annals of horror history.