The Innocents (1961)
Written by William Archibald, Truman Capote, and John Mortimer
Directed by Jack Clayton
Horror is an umbrella term for diverse subgenres that all focus on one emotion: Fear. As a human being, you know fear has many levels and tones. You can have a momentary fright or slowly sink into the quicksand of dread. Horror cinema has films that fit this spectrum of intensity, with cheap jumpscares ruling the box office (for the most part). My personal favorite type of horror leans into existential fears. Gothic horror often does this exceptionally well, emphasizing atmosphere and striking visuals that linger. Alien is an excellent example of Gothic horror, even though it’s set in space. The fear comes primarily from our sense of dread, knowing that something terrible will happen yet not knowing why or if it can be stopped. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is about facing something you cannot fully understand, but it still speaks to something you’ve suppressed within yourself. For many people, that type of horror is all too real.
Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) has accepted her first job as a governess. She’ll be working for a wealthy man (Michael Redgrave), uncle to a pair of orphans. He wants nothing to do with them, and his agreement with Miss Giddens is that he will be the bank, but he never wants to see or hear from her or the children unless it is the most pressing emergency. They reside at Bly Manor, cared for by his housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Their previous governess died suddenly a few years ago, but the details of her demise are obscured. Miss Giddens arrives and goes about bonding with the children through activities around the property. The older child, Miles, has recently been sent home from boarding school for being a “bad influence” on the other boys. Miles and his little sister Flora whisper & giggle to each other, holding some secrets that Miss Giddens becomes obsessed with knowing. Something happened in Bly Manor before Miss Giddens’ arrival, an event that has torn through the fabric of reality and sanity.
The Innocents is a film that exists in layers. This was aided by the trio of writers that worked on the project. William Archibald worked out the initial narrative, Truman Capote was brought in to add richness to the psychological elements, and John Mortimer was responsible for cleaning up the dialogue. This might seem like a “too many cooks” situation, but the result is a highly literary feeling film. This is a genre picture and a great example of how horror is a proper art form. The premise may seem straightforward, but The Innocents is nowhere near as simple as it might appear. This is one of the most complex horror films ever made, and there’s no gore or violence. Instead, the horror is all about desire and our endless war to suppress it.
One critical element that makes The Innocents work is that the reality of the ghosts is kept ambiguous the whole way through. The film never provides the audience with a clear answer if Bly Manor is truly haunted or if Miss Giddens is going through a mental health crisis. Director Jack Clayton was clear during production that he did not want a movie that came down explicitly on what was happening but focused more on how this situation affects Miss Giddens. Her psychological collapse is the film’s core, and everything that happens reflects her decline more than the actual things happening in the house. This is achieved by a camera that exists within the governess’s perspective. What she sees, we see, whether that be in material reality or in her fantasies. There’s never a scene where she leaves a room, and the camera lingers to show a door close by itself or some other tease.
The conversations the children have are also part of that ambiguity. The things they say are heard in fragments and could just as easily be innocent. Instead, Giddens imposes her own meaning on them, combined with the fragmented story of Mrs. Grose and her time at Bly. When Giddens confronts the children, they talk around the subject or change it entirely. On one level, this can be seen to inform their status as sinister “creepy” kids, but there’s a more grounded explanation. These children saw things that traumatized them, and their seemingly calm facade is psychological masking to not confront the pain. Their uncle is clearly a toxically avoidant person; that trait seems to have seeped into his relatives. However, did that even happen to the children, or is Miss Giddens’ painfully suppressed sexuality finally creating cracks in her controlled veneer, and she’s simply transposing it onto other people? There’s a primal terror in the ideal of the mythologized “purity of children” being tainted by the eventual desires everyone develops to one extent or another as adults. I’ve met my share of school teachers and assistants who hold onto this idealized form of childhood purity long after it is appropriate, trying to frame teenagers with healthy sexual urges as behaving “unnaturally.”
One of my favorite elements of this classic horror film is the cinematography by the legendary Freddie Francis. His prowess is displayed in the elaborate dream sequences that plague Miss Gidden’s evenings. The perspectives shift, and distortions emerge during these sequences, setting them apart from the rest of the picture. In Miss Gidden’s dreams, we are in the realm of raw Freuden psychology, processing her day and the things she’s learned about Bly Manor so that the most horrific elements emerge. This means when she wakes, that interpretation of what is happening lingers in her mind, shaping her actions the following day.
Your reading of The Innocents is just as valid as anyone else’s based on the piece’s construction. I personally see Miss Giddens as a victim of the society she has come up in but also as an instrument of perpetuating that traumatic psychology on the next generation. She views the children as a threat to her because they don’t behave in a manner that matches cultural standards. There is a good chance they were exposed to sex before it was developmentally appropriate, and they should have received proper care. Instead, their uncle and the housekeeper swept it under the rug.
Avoidance is the method of choice for far too many people. But the children’s minds are still trying to make sense of what they saw or what possibly happened to them. Miles kisses Miss Giddens square on the mouth at one point as if testing her. She doesn’t pull away immediately but gives into the kiss to an extent before becoming irate. Her conclusion is that Miles must be possessed by the spirit of the abuser, and she never really seeks help for her charges. Yes, he’s showing that he’s been traumatized, but she doesn’t know how to square that with her narrow worldview. The horror of The Innocents is that all we seem to be able to do is hurt each other, especially ourselves, and that we live in constant terror of our minds & bodies.
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