A governess (Deborah Kerr) confronts voices, apparitions, noises and superstitions in 1961’s The Innocents – a much better name for a The Turn of the Screw adaptation than The Turning, though not as good as Scary Poppins.
Contrary to Henry James’ DIY-sounding title and The Turning‘s tab A into slot B approach, adapting this potent yet inscrutable chiller requires a few coats of interpretation – and Jack Clayton’s is a hauntingly twisted one, open to several interpretations of its own. He foregrounds the theme of child abuse hinted at in the novella, while still keeping it just below the surface and never showing a single act of violence – only the most disturbing kisses this side of Junior.
The adaptation is executed with faithful ambiguity, casting both light and shade over the governess’ role – whether she’s wrestling for control of someone else’s kids, their souls or her own sanity, her presence at Bly House is ultimately a damning one. Kerr is wonderful as the woman whose screws slowly loosen, opposite Megs Jenkins’ haunted-housekeeper. As the children, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin are the perfect mix of angelic and creepy.
One certainty is the beauty of this film, all dreamy dissolves and close-ups so intimate Kerr complained the camera was making her go cross-eyed. Shot in black-and-white CinemaScope by Freddie Francis (The Elephant Man, Dune), the greatest scares occur in broad daylight (especially shocking for Midsommar apologists) – with eerie, intense sound design as children’s screams echo around the house, shrouded in ghostly white.
Through subtle scares and welcome script contributions by Truman Capote, The Innocents is among the best of its genre – a beautiful, sinister and spine-tingling classic that holds you in its chilly grasp and refuses to let go, even after the credits. It’s everything The Turning isn’t, and so much more.