Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents” is a dark and warped little feature, made with extraordinary prestige, that manages to be genuinely horrifying, and leaves the viewer reeling with all sorts of hidden implications and grotesque subtleties. That it was made in 1961 is intriguing; it marks the halfway point between old stuffy gothic melodramas, and the graphic, sordid,and seedy affairs contained in the post-Psycho horror films. In this sense, it contains the best of both worlds.
The film begins with a young, fresh-faced woman named Mrs Giddens (Deborah Kerr) being interviewed with an unnamed uncle (Michael Redgrave), for a position as governess in a country house, which predominantly entails looking after two young children, a brother and a sister. The circumstances of their parents’ deaths are not explicitly spelled out. The uncle comes across as callous, but honest. He cares not for the children, does not have the first idea how to care for them, and would be most content to leave them in Giddens’ hands and turn his back away from the matter. Giddens nods her head, and takes on the position.
Upon arriving at the estate, she is at first bowled over by its beauty, and then at the charm of the sister Flora (Pamela Franklin), and then by the kindness of the cleaner Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins), and then when he is expelled from his boarding school under mysterious circumstances, she is bowled over by the brother, Miles (Martin Stephens). Everything seems somewhat idyllic; the children are intelligent, attentive, and well behaved.
But something doesn’t sit right with Giddens, and there’s something about the house that puts her acutely on edge, be it the strange noises she hears like echoing clangs reverberating around the corridors and the trees, or the way the children just seem that little bit too intelligent, and too aware, for their own good, coupled with their recalcitrant nature when it comes the previous occupants of the house, or what exactly Miles did to get himself expelled.
There is no denying that for its time, this must have been a highly original film; I say this, because so much of the film I recognised as having been stolen by later filmmakers, such as James Wan and William Friedkin. Be it the piercing sound design, or the cutaway shot of a mysterious black-robed woman walking from one corridor to another, or the use of children as a tool for striking into our most anxious fears of the unknown. This is a mere observation, as opposed to criticism; this film is monumentally influential.
But more than the nature of the story, which is compelling, what made this film a great one for me was the use of the frame, and the shot composition, presumably attributable to cinematographer Freddie Francis. This is, simply, one of the most strikingly sumptuous, immersive films I’ve seen. Shot in and expansive 2.40:1 ratio, this film doesn’t waste a second, and the camera dances around the characters like a predatory, ravenous monster, shifting the focus from one placement to the next, whilst keeping the characters in it in a way that seems utterly natural, and unforced.
Take a scene near the end of the film, where Giddens and Miles are alone in a room. Miles appears at the window and talks to Giddens, who is pottering near a piano. Their conversation occurs without cuts, and furniture stands in between them. Then Miles walks round, and Giddens follows him, and then they are both sat at the table together. Another film would have simply cut to the pair, but in this film the camera dollies round and reveals them sitting opposite each other, with the elaborate mis-en-scene that you would expect from a painstakingly choreographed theatre piece. Rather than simply presenting each subject in a separate frame, as is the standard, this film contains them both. The result is complete immersion.
Perhaps this is an odd angle at which to approach this film, but it was what struck me most immediately about it. The film is, dare I say it, very very scary, especially as the true nature of the children reveals itself, and Giddens tries her utmost not to fall into hysteria. Kerr’s performance is magnificently controlled, only allowing the true depth of her feelings for the children to reveal itself in a handful of key moments.
The sound design adds profoundly to the discomfort, and the film does a very clever job of grounding the viewer in the scene through an almost exaggerated aural detail. Hands clasp doorknobs, wind beats against the window panes, rain hits the lake, people shuffle in seats, and we hear it all, and it puts us in the moment.
What we have, then, is the ultimate example of elevated material. There are so many ways this film could have been schlock, and it is likely that if it was made today, it would be terrible. But the prestige of the film, and commitment of all the main players, and Jack Clayton’s unfailing sense of duty to the material all add up to something just a bit greater than the sum of its parts. This is a great film, respectfully a classic, but no amount of lavish description or praise can do justice to the act of simply sitting down and letting it wash over you, letting it get under your skin.