Welcome to Silver Screams! In honor of Rebirth and Renewal month here on Nightmare on Film Street, we’re exploring the cinematic classic that’s about to be re-imagined by Mike Flanagan as The Haunting of Bly Manor. The series will be the second season to the wildly popular The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. We can surmise from the first season’s treatment of Shirley Jackson’s novel that Bly Manor will be more of a re-imagining than a straight adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. But this remains a perfect time to revisit one of the best horror adaptations of all time, a film that remains terrifying to this day — 1961’s The Innocents.
An Immortal Ghost Story
The Innocents is, of course, also an adaptation of Henry James influential 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. It tells the story of Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a woman who has been hired by the uncaring uncle of two young children as their governess. The children were orphaned and placed in his care at a young age, and he has no qualms in expressing his disdain for them. He requires that should Miss Giddens accept the position, she must take full responsibility for the children and never trouble him with anything. He keeps the children at Bly Manor, his country estate, far from London and his city life. He also explains that the position is open because of the recent, unexpected death of Miss Jessel, the previous governess. These strange circumstances give Miss Giddens pause, but she accepts the position because of the large salary she is offered.
Once arriving at Bly Manor, she finds the place inviting but decayed. It’s surrounded by lush gardens and insects, a pond and sprawling grounds. She meets young Flora, the little girl in her charge, and feels instant relief with the child’s bright, sweet and playful temperament. But shortly after, Miles, the slightly older boy who was away at school, is expelled due to being a vague “bad influence” on the other students. This shocks Mrs. Gross, the housekeeper who has been at Bly for some time. She only knew Miles as a supremely well-behaved boy. When Miles does arrive, he’s happy to be home and seems to be no trouble at all. But there is something uncanny in his nature, something too mature in his mannerisms, and he is often far too flirtatious for a child.
Soon, Miss Giddens begins seeing mysterious figures around the Manor where no one else should be. After investigating her sightings, she learns that Miss Jessel died by suicide after the suspicious death of Peter Quint, Bly Manor’s groundskeeper. Quint was by all accounts a violent, abusive, and manipulative man who had a passionate but toxic affair with Miss Jessel. Both parties seemed to have involved the children in some way in their relationship — with Quint taking Miles under his wing and Miss Jessel being very close with Flora. Terrified, Miss Giddens begins to suspect that the ghosts of the dead lovers have possessed the two children so that they may extend their romance beyond the grave.
A Filmmaking Team For The Ages
The Innocents was directed and produced by Jack Clayton with a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote. Clayton was fresh off of his hit directorial debut, Room at the Top (1959), a gritty and acclaimed work of British New Wave cinema. Ever afraid of being pigeonholed, Clayton insisted on a genre departure for his next film and settled upon trying his hand at horror.
Archibald had previously written a successful stage play of James’ novel, also renamed The Innocents. Originally, Archibald adapted the script more closely to his play. The novel is famously ambiguous as to if the hauntings are legitimate or manifestations of a mentally unstable governess. Archibald made the hauntings very clearly supernatural in his play, and his screenplay followed suit.
But Clayton wanted some suggestions of the “insane governess” alternative, so he brought on Truman Capote to add a little ambiguity and Freudian symbolism back into the script. Capote was in the midst of writing his true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood, but he was a huge fan of The Turn of the Screw. He couldn’t refuse the opportunity, so he took three weeks off his book to work on the script.
“When Miss Giddens sees her first apparition, sounds of nature go suddenly silent, then seamlessly return as soon as the spirit vanishes. It’s one of the many brilliant cinematic techniques employed in The Innocents to disorient and disturb the audience.”
Capote’s influence can be felt in the borderline southern gothic style of The Innocents. The overgrown grounds and gardens of Bly Manor are emphasized, evoking something of a decaying Louisiana plantation — with cicadas and other insects in a relentless hum. The natural sounds of the setting are used to guide us into the supernatural realm. When Miss Giddens sees her first apparition, sounds of nature go suddenly silent, then seamlessly return as soon as the spirit vanishes. It’s one of the many brilliant cinematic techniques employed in The Innocents to disorient and disturb the audience. The southern flavored atmosphere somehow fits seamlessly into the British set story, suggesting a dark history of tangled minds and emotions haunting the characters.
In the end, Clayton found his perfect balance between the possibilities of a mental or supernatural source for the horrors, and the film can be interpreted either way. However, much like The Shining, we as the audience are tempted to believe in the ghosts. After all, we see them right along with Miss Giddens.
A New Kind of Fear
And it’s the appearance of those ghosts and the subtle, hair-raising scares of the film that places The Innocents ahead of its time. The film relies heavily on its atmosphere, cinematography, and the performances of its actors to unnerve the audience, rather than jump scares or over the top imagery. Much of the horror of the film lies in suggestion. Cinematographer Freddie Francis used deeper focus and bright lighting in the center of many shots to emphasize the possibility that something might be lurking just out of view. In some of the interior shots, Francis actually painted the sides of the lens black, to intensify the suggestion of unknown horrors in every corner. Clayton worked closely with editor Jim Clark to create a nightmarish atmosphere for the film with disorienting superimpositions, dissolves, and alternating slow and fast-paced cutting. The effect pulls us into the distorted perception of our protagonist and suggests the lingering trauma that the events of the past imprint on the present.
The score for the film is another masterpiece of terror. The music by Georges Auric is foreboding and often panic-inducing. I have a vivid memory from my childhood of channel surfing and happening upon The Innocents. The scene I came in on was of Miles riding a horse while Flora cheers him on. The scene itself shouldn’t have been frightening. But the music unnerved me so much that I instantly changed the channel in fear. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized I had stumbled upon The Innocents, and I gained a new respect for the power of film music.
The film opens with forty-five seconds of a darkened screen, with only the sound of a child singing the dark folk song, “O Willow Waly,” a song sung throughout the film by Flora that suggests the influence of Miss Jessel. It’s extremely creepy, and so ahead of its time that it reportedly troubled audiences who thought there was a problem with the projector. In his masterful tribute to the gothic genre, Crimson Peak (2015), Guillermo Del Toro homages this opening. It’s one of many references in his work to The Innocents, which he lists among his favorite horror films of all time.
“The final factor that puts the Innocents among the masterpieces of horror cinema is the performances.”
The final factor that puts the Innocents among the masterpieces of horror cinema is the performances. Deborah Kerr is phenomenal in the lead. An incredible actress, Kerr manages to deliver possibly the best performance of her career in this film. She plays the role as a completely sane woman fighting for the souls of the children within her charge, allowing for the audience to decide where her conviction is originating from.
The child actors bring everything together. Martin Stephens is incredible as Miles. He channels a sinister maturity beyond his years. It makes Miss Giddens suspicions of possession make perfect sense, and he sells the disturbing undertones of his interactions with Kerr brilliantly. Pamela Franklin is equally excellent as Flora. She plays the role more playfully and childlike than Stephens, but it makes her slips into creepy extra effective. Stephens was already a horror pro by The Innocents, after excelling as the leader of the alien children in Village of the Damned (1960). Franklin made her horror debut here, but went on to become a young scream queen in many horror films, including The Nanny (1965), And Soon the Darkness (1970), Necromancy (1972), and The Legend of Hell House (1973).
In the original novel, the children were overall less sinister, with more focus on the paranoia of the governess. But The Innocents deliberately unnerves the audience with the behavior of Miles and Flora. Their actions could be the result of possession, but they could also be a symptom of trauma from the heavily suggested manipulation and abuse they suffered from the deceased Quint and Miss Jessel. It’s as if Miss Giddens clings to the supernatural to avoid the horror of the latter. She cannot face that in some cases, even children are not innocent to all things.
A Ghostly Masterpiece
The Innocents was not a box office success on its initial release, and it received mixed reviews from critics. It’s hard to imagine why, but in Deborah Kerr’s autobiography she had the most viable theory; “they didn’t know how to respond to something so genuinely spooky – so interwoven with reality that it could be real – and that’s something people didn’t like.”
It’s true, The Innocents was incredibly ahead of its time. The film is an example of what happens when every factor of filmmaking comes together in perfect harmony. The script is superb, co-written by one of the great authors of the 20th century. The direction is incredible, with Clayton’s reputation for attention to detail apparent in every frame. The scares are the kind that get under your skin and into your nightmares. They don’t force themselves upon you. They just sit with you, forcing you to contend with their presence. The ghosts are frightening in a way that feels like a precursor to the apparitions of The Shining — silent, still, and horrifying. The performers are incredible, the cinematography unnerving and groundbreaking. In short, The Innocents is a masterpiece. It pushed the house genre to new heights that have rarely been achieved since. If you haven’t seen it, give it a watch. Mike Flannagan has quite a legacy to live up to. Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams!
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