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.
Many a filmmaker could take more than a few lessons from the atmosphere of The Innocents, something established incredibly well both indoors and out
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...
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.