This weekend, countless people will no doubt find themselves gathered in darkened rooms, sitting on couches and chairs, watching a movie (or two) designed to put them in the Halloween spirit (no pun intended). Some of the more obvious viewing choices might be any of the Halloween movies (especially the 1978 original), The Shining, The Silence of the Lambs, or even more recent films such as the Paranormal Activity movies or The Conjuring. Regardless of the quality of any of these or other films, the possibilities are endless. (I went to a party this weekend and watched The Exorcist in the host’s backyard, the chilly night air creating an appropriately spooky atmosphere. You might not be able to recreate that atmosphere, but atmosphere certainly helps.)
My suggestion for your Halloween movie (or at least one of them) is an often neglected masterpiece that has, for most people, several things working against it:
It’s in black-and-white
It’s from a director most people have forgotten (or never heard of to begin with)
There’s no gore (and possibly not even any blood, if I’m remembering correctly)
So why in the world would you want to watch The Innocents?
This 1961 film directed by Jack Clayton is intelligent, atmospheric, disturbing, sinister, creepy, cryptic, and beautifully photographed, with performances that absolutely resonate with a lingering sense of unease. (This is quite possibly Deborah Kerr’s finest work.) This adaptation from the Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw” features a screenplay by William Archibald (who wrote the 1950 play The Innocents) and Truman Capote. Rather than diluting or confounding James’s original voice and tone, the screenwriters masterfully adapt it, knowing when to keep it intact and when to make subtle changes that never veer from the tone of the original.
In the film’s opening, we see Deborah Kerr’s character in earnest prayer, breathlessly whispering that she wants to save the children, not destroy them. Cut to an extravagant office where a wealthy English gentleman (Michael Redgrave) is interviewing a woman named Miss Giddens (Kerr), asking “Do you have an imagination?” Miss Giddens replies that “More than anything, I love children.” The man has grudgingly agreed to provide for his orphan niece and nephew and needs a governess, someone who will tend to the children’s needs and - most importantly - never contact him.
It’s clear early on that Miss Giddens is painfully naive and - being the unmarried daughter of a country parson - quite sheltered. Yet she takes the job and arrives at Bly, a vast estate that perfectly reflects the Victorian setting. She immediately meets Flora (Pamela Franklin), and later Miles (Martin Stephens), who both take to Miss Giddens immediately. The housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) warns Miss Giddens that, like their uncle, the children can be most persuasive.
Miss Giddens begins to learn more about the previous governess, Miss Jessel, who died suddenly while caring for the children. As she learns more about the children and the past occurrences at Bly, strange things begin to happen. Or do they? The Innocents is a superb journey into the supernatural, yet it is also a personal journey for Miss Giddens, who struggles against her own naïvety to discover the truth. Much like a similar film, The Haunting (1963), The Innocents uses atmosphere and the slow accumulation of the unusual in constructing its horror. What is not shown is often more frightening than what is shown.
Part of what makes The Innocents work so well is Kerr’s performance. She’s in almost every scene and never makes a false move. Many of her scenes are subtle, revealing tiny flashes of her character. One of my favorite scenes occurs early in the film as she’s talking with Mrs. Grose, asking if the children’s uncle ever comes to visit. Miss Giddens was clearly taken with the uncle in the film’s first scene and hopes to see more of him, so when she approaches a large mirror, she’s evaluating herself to some degree. Mrs. Grose responds that he never comes, and why would he? All he would find at Bly, she says, would be “the children, the pigeons and me.” Kerr’s timing is perfect, the way she looks with hope and expectation into the mirror until Mrs. Grose answers, forcing Kerr to glance down from her own image, finally settling on a bouquet of flowers, which allows her to change both the topic and her demeanor. The whole thing takes only a couple of seconds, but in those seconds we learn volumes about the character of Miss Giddens.
While not exactly shocking, The Innocents contains two scenes that are similar in nature and disturbing, one occurring about halfway through the film, the other at the end. They just might be the key to understanding the film; I know I’ve never forgotten them. Without giving too much away, The Innocents is a film that touches on many themes, but they all lead back to the film’s title. You won’t find blood, gore, cheap scares or inane elements in The Innocents, but what you do find is likely to stay with you much longer, seeping in under your skin for an unsettling stay. You’ll find much to dwell on and much to admire. And it might even keep you up at night.