Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuppence An Innocent

On the list of dangerous professions to have when starring in a horror movie, I think ‘governess’ must rank fairly high. Add in the dread of children speaking with British accents inside a large and ghost-ridden mansion and you can bet your spoonful of sugar that the overtime pay just isn’t worth it.
Quick Plot: Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a prim blond with the luck of the easiest job interview since Being John Malcovich. Although she has never actually worked with children, she adores them and instantly lands the position of being governess to the niece and nephew of a wealthy--but not lonely, hm hm hm--bachelor who inherited the rugrats without the slightest desire to even look at them. Miss Giddens immediately packs up her velvet bustles and heads to a secluded country home to meet, teach, and get really freaked out by Flora and Miles.

All seems well and Mary Poppinsonian at first, as Flora (played by a ten year old And Soon the Darkness’ Pamela Franklin) is an absolute dear, while Miles proves to be incredibly charming...perhaps too charming. It isn’t long before Miss Giddens starts to pick up on strange cues between the children, an odd closeness that ends in ominous giggles. Coupled with that, she keeps hearing voices and occasionally catching glimpses of figures no one acknowledges until the housekeeper reveals the fate of the previous governess Miss Jessel and her abusive lover, the family’s valet Quint.

The Innocents is an eerily gothic ghost story that takes its time a la The Haunting. Co-written by Truman Capote (based on a play by William Archibald which was in turn based on The Turning of the Screw by Henry James), the film has long been a favorite of greatest horror films/ghost stories/underrated genre pictures by the likes of such luminaries as Martin Scorsese. You can see why. From the haunting music box theme to shadowy menaces, director Jack Clayton (aided immensely by director of photography Freddie Francis) builds some brilliant suspense with every tool at his disposal. Heck, just hearing the name “Miss Jessel” spoken with an English accent is enough to send a few chills through your spine.

In addition to creepy ghosts with romantic liaisons, The Innocents is rich with something far more unsettling and not innocent: Oedipal leanings. The precocious Miles takes quite a liking to his pretty teacher, leading to an uncomfortable moment that puts Miss Giddens at the wrong end of an inappropriate goodnight kiss. It’s incredibly creepy and though it doesn’t get fully explored, the hints hang in the air with stifling weight.

High Points
Many a filmmaker could take more than a few lessons from the atmosphere of The Innocents, something established incredibly well both indoors and out
Low Points
Though Miss Giddens’ chastity does come across, we never quite get to know this woman outside of her relationship to the children. While that in itself is interesting, it would have helped to know a tad more about our main character’s past, at least to give us a clearer sense of her reliability. Although perhaps that was the point...

Lessons Learned
When you spot a ghostly figure lurking outside, always make a note of his rating because you can guarantee the first question asked to identify the stranger will be “Is he handsome?”

Suggesting a game of hide-and-seek inside a gigantic mansion just before bedtime is probably not the best idea a governess could make
Nothing weird about bringing a dead bird to bed with you. Nothing. At. All.

Pompadours don't look any more normal on gothic children than they do on Korean dictators

The Innocents is a hard film to find, but if it comes your way, it’s certainly worth dimming the lights for a quietly chilled evening. Fans of atmospheric horror should consider it required viewing in the same vein as The Haunting. Of course, it’s a slow trail and one not necessarily rewarded with a colorful Insidious ghost party finale or The Others-like twist, but The Innocents is, plain and simple, a classic in its understated horror straight into its tragic conclusion. Watch it...just not if you have to agree to supervise creepy British kids in order to do so.


  1. LOVE this film. Scared the hell out of me when I first watched it this year. Amazon.com has the DVD for $10, and you can get the Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk (which is what I did).

  2. It's odd that this one doesn't have an official US special edition. It's just as good (if not maybe better) than The Haunting, but it only seems to get any notice on underrated lists. Strange.

  3. What was the movie which had ending credits of the evil child getting spanked by the heroine? I though that that was this movie.

    Well when I see ghostly men outside my window, the first question I ask myself is can they kill a man with one punch, like Jackie Chan did to a Lee Van Cleef lookalike in the film I just reviewed (one that has the biggest downer of an ending since The Great Silence!).

  4. The Bad Seed! The playful spanking is totally The Bad Seed, one of my faves. No Lee Van Cleef in that one, but I'll stop by to confirm that there's no Patty McCormack in New Fist of Fury*

    I typo'ed "Fish of Fury," and now I really want to see that movie...

  5. Still have not seen this movie, but I did watch a late 90's Masterpiece Theater version of Turn of the Screw back in October that was pretty good. That version starred Jodhi May (Last of the Mohicans) as the governess and had an all too brief appearance by Colin Firth as the kids' absentee uncle. I should get around to watching The Innocents since it is considered by a lot of people to be an excellent film version of Henry James' novel.

  6. Now I'm intrigued to read/see the Turn of the Screw. I've actually never read any James, which is fairly scandalous as an English major.

  7. I watched The Innocents for the first time a few years ago on a recommendation. I fell in love with it. IMO, it's the best ghost story committed to film.

    To me, Deborah Kerr went above and beyond with her performance, because I always felt that she wasn't quite the right age. She was too mature to be the young maiden, and too young to be the aged spinster. She's right in the middle and for this role, that doesn't seem to be the right place to be. The sexually repressed aspects play into my opinion. But Kerr totally nails it with her nervous energy, sinking deeper to a point of no return. The kids were fantastic and at the end, you just feel so helpless and creeped out. All this without cheap special effects or pulling the punches to create a happy ending. GREAT movie. Definitely a must buy.

    I didn't do this last October but I plan to spend a weekend watching the following ghost movies:

    * The Haunting
    * The Innocents
    * The Legend of Hell House (with a grown up Pamela Franklin)
    * The Changeling
    * The Others
    * The Devil's Backbone
    * The Orphanage

    I could talk about The Innocents all day. Such a scary good watch!

  8. Great lineup! The only one out of those I haven't seen is The Legend of Hell House. I was slightly disappointed with The Changeling just because i'd heard such earth-shattering things about it, but then it fell into my least favorite ghost story trope of righting the wrong to solve all problems and I was let down just a tad.

    You're totally right about Kerr. It's a film I look forward to rewatching eventually, possibly after reading the book or justing sitting back from it for some time. I think some of Kerr's character's subtle strangeness might actually read better on second time around.