My first interaction with The Turn of the Screw was a very small theater’s production of the play last Halloween. I really enjoyed myself watching it and Becca, my roommate, even got a little spooked! When I was looking for films to watch this month, imagine how delighted I was to see today’s pick, The Innocents (1969) on so many “best of….” lists. Based on Henry James’ 1898 story about a young woman, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), who accepts a governess job at a country manor only to grapple with the chilling question — are there ghosts haunting this idyllic estate or is it all in her mind?
Watching the play, I was unnerved. I was captivated by the actress portraying Miss Givens as she narrated these harrowing encounters with the specters she sees around the grounds and I was no less affected by the incredible delivery of this film. It says something, to me at least, that just seeing the face of a man in a window behind an already creepy child or noticing a woman walking down a hall where there should be no one could create such a response out of me especially without the aid of our modern tricks to make you jump like loud music or sounds. The Innocents doesn’t need that to make you scared, it’s a got a deadly cocktail of so many other factors that will get you if the ghosts won’t.
The whole aesthetic of the film is claustrophobic and grim. After Miss Givens arrives at the manor, you never leave the property. To help capture just how claustrophobic the manor is at night, the edge of the lenses were painted to help close in the subject. It’s a really clever and effective trick. Pay attention to how you feel in those scenes versus the others.
If that trick doesn’t get you, maybe the children will. Played to their full terrifying potential in time, they can make even the merry murderers from Sinister look tame in comparison.
Flora (Pamela Franklin) appears at the beginning of the film to be a well-mannered child, a little odd at times, but overall a general delight to be around. As the mystery unfolds and the plot thickens, however, even behind that darling smile there may lurk something more sinister especially when she’s teamed up with Miles.
The winner of the creepy kid award though should go to Martin Stephens for his portrayal of Miles. Miles isn’t even given a chance to really be anything less than terrifying. There’s a mystery surrounding his return to the manor since his expulsion and the secrecy to all of his actions. There’s some really chilling moments with Miles I don’t want to spoil here because they catch you so off guard and muddy the mystery even further. He’s incredibly engaging and his delivery of the frightening poem about a lord who rises from the dead is such an incredible scene in particular. It’s kind of a pity he’s no longer an actor with talent as sharp as this.
The Innocents as a whole seems to be pointing you toward one single interpretation as far as whether Miss Givens is a lunatic or is actually being haunted by ghosts. My position on the matter flopped almost entirely from having seen the play and now I’m unsure. Could it be the isolation at this huge estate got to her or is there something truly otherworldly at play? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.
What are your thoughts? Sound off in the comments if you think you’ve got it figured out!