This genuinely frightening, exquisitely made supernatural gothic stars Deborah Kerr as an emotionally fragile governess who comes to suspect that there is something very, very wrong with her precocious new charges. A psychosexually intensified adaptation of Henry James’s classic The Turn of the Screw, cowritten by Truman Capote and directed by Jack Clayton, 'The Innocents' is a triumph of narrative economy and technical expressiveness, from its chilling sound design to the stygian depths of its widescreen cinematography by Freddie Francis.
Gory, gratuitous slasher flicks are a dime a dozen, and usually cost about as much to produce. Well-crafted horror, on the other hand, takes special care, requiring just the right mix of atmosphere, suspense, and insidious villainy to create a menacing mood. 'The Innocents' possesses all those elements and more, and reminds us just how unsettling a good thriller can be. Jack Clayton's taut, riveting film spills not a drop of blood, but still keeps us on the edge of our seats, deliciously taunting our senses while stimulating our brains. Few chillers are as complex and ambiguous, which makes 'The Innocents' a fascinating tale to dissect and debate...after the tension subsides.
A faithful adaptation of Henry James' classic ghost story, 'The Turn of the Screw,' 'The Innocents' stars Deborah Kerr as the demure yet gutsy Miss Giddens, an inexperienced, repressed Victorian governess who ventures to a remote English estate to care for the orphaned niece and nephew of an aloof London businessman (Michael Redgrave). Eager to wash his hands of the burdensome children, the uncle cautions Miss Giddens that she will be completely on her own, and is not to bother him with any issues under any circumstances. "Whatever happens," he tells her, "you must handle it alone."
The governess takes those words to heart, and soon becomes an ardent advocate for Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) when strange happenings seem to threaten their safety. Almost from the moment she arrives at Bly House, Miss Giddens hears voices and sees apparitions. At first, she questions her sanity, but Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), the housekeeper, validates her visions by telling her the sordid tale of the master's roguish valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), and his passionate yet abusive affair with the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop). According to Mrs. Grose, Miles, desperate for a father figure, worshipped Quint, while Flora grew deeply attached to Miss Jessel. Like puppies, the children followed them everywhere, yet the lovers crudely exploited the adoration, corrupting "the innocents" by allowing them to witness their trysts and brawls. Then, one cold winter evening, a drunken Quint slipped on an icy step and the ensuing fall crushed his skull, killing him. His sudden death so devastated Miss Jessel, she lost her will to live and soon "died of a broken heart." End of story.
Or is it? After hearing the disturbing yarn, Miss Giddens becomes convinced the dead pair's spirits still roam the estate and prey upon the souls of Miles and Flora, egging them on to perform dangerous, filthy deeds. With Mrs. Grose's help, she vows to exorcise the demons, and thus save the children from a wretched fate.
'The Turn of the Screw' remains one of history's most controversial and oft-analyzed pieces of literature, and 'The Innocents' wisely refuses to dumb it down for shock value. On the contrary, the film slyly embraces the novella's intricacies, driving viewers to distraction in an attempt to decipher its sketchy plot and make sense of its provocative themes (sexual repression and incest among them). While it's possible to enjoy 'The Innocents' as a traditional ghost story and take the bizarre events at face value, it's the subtleties and ambiguities littered throughout the William Archibald-Truman Capote script that help shape it into a great movie.
Each sequence sparks or reinforces questions. How can Miss Giddens see and hear the spirits when no one else does? Are they real, or could they be a product of her dreams or imagination? Could she be fabricating the events in a desperate attempt to gain the attention of the children's attractive uncle or fulfill the mandate of her fundamentalist upbringing? Could she herself be possessed… or insane? No answers are forthcoming, which makes the film both fascinating and maddening. Like a bad dream, it worms its way into the recesses of our brain, where it percolates long after the shock of its climax has faded.
Director Clayton ('Room at the Top') never resorts to cheap thrills to jolt the audience; instead, he masterfully uses atmosphere to ever-so-slowly build suspense. With the help of cinematographer Freddie Francis, he infuses the idyllic, tranquil manor setting with just enough eeriness to keep us in a constant state of unease. And when he scares us, he does it the old-fashioned way. A creaky floor plank and sudden gust of wind are the only ingredients Clayton needs to raise our pulse levels, and he employs them to perfection. Of course, much of the action transpires at night (with a requisite thunderstorm or two for good measure), but several disturbing events also occur in broad daylight, which lends them a spookier edge. The ominous mood persists even during straightforward dialogue scenes, and, unlike most contemporary chillers, no comic relief cuts the tension.
In addition, 'The Innocents' possesses another critical element standard horror films lack — great acting. Deborah Kerr exhibits so many facets of Miss Giddens' character, they're impossible to digest in a single viewing. Unlocking the secrets of the governess is the key to understanding the story, yet Kerr plays her hand close to the vest. With amazing subtlety, she provides glimpses of the neuroses, girlish romanticism, sexual repression, and subjugated desires that make Miss Giddens such a controversial figure, and her pitch-perfect tone keeps us transfixed throughout the film. Kerr holds the dubious distinction of garnering the most Best Actress Oscar nominations (6) without a victory — although she did finally win one of those meaningless and long-overdue honorary Oscars in 1994 — yet the Academy completely and unbelievably passed her over for 'The Innocents,' which ranks as one of her finest performances. Go figure.
As the stalwart Mrs. Grose, the always marvelous Jenkins files a warm, endearing portrayal, and Clayton draws excellent work from his two child actors. Already a veteran of the horror genre at age 12, Stephens starred in the equally unnerving 'Village of the Damned' the year before, but the way he combines childish ebullience with a dark, intense maturity in 'The Innocents' is quite remarkable in one so young. He shares some shamefully intimate moments with Kerr, yet handles them all with aplomb. Franklin, who would go on to play a pivotal role in 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' eight years later, possesses just the right fresh-faced cuteness and natural charm to make Flora come to life, and Redgrave enjoys an inspired cameo as the stuffy, selfish uncle.
Fans of lurid shockers undoubtedly will find 'The Innocents' a bore, but those who appreciate fine films marked by impeccable production values, narrative complexity, challenging themes, and superb acting will be gripped by Jack Clayton's brilliant adaptation of 'The Turn of the Screw.' Even if thrillers give you the willies, steel yourself for this unforgettable supernatural tale. It's well worth the palpitations.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Innocents' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 12-page, fold-out booklet is tucked inside the front cover, and features an exceptionally well-written essay by critic Maitland McDonagh, as well as a cast and credit listing and transfer notes. I must admit I was disappointed the booklet wasn't more substantive and more lavishly illustrated. Only one photograph is included, and it's not even of Deborah Kerr. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with eerie sound effects immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, "this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution...from the 35 mm original camera negative," and what a glorious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer it is! Though the previous 2005 DVD rendering from Fox was quite good, this effort markedly improves upon it, thanks to exceptional sharpness and contrast, as well as a smooth, ethereal texture that immerses us in the spooky goings-on. The image here is slightly darker and more lush than what appeared on the DVD, and the source material exhibits not a single speck, mark, or scratch. Grain, though still apparent, has been reduced as well, yet the picture retains a very filmic look. Exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Freddie Francis ('Glory,' 'Cape Fear'), 'The Innocents' makes marvelous use of the wide CinemaScope frame, which never diminishes the critical intimacy and feeling of confinement that's such an essential aspect of the story's mood.
Excellent gray scale variance allows details to pop, both in the foreground and background. Wallpaper designs, window reflections, costume fabrics, and the knick-knacks that adorn the living areas of the mansion are all incredibly well defined. Black levels are rich and deep (a must for a ghost story), yet superb shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Whites are prevalent, too, evidenced by a preponderance of rose bushes and bouquets and Kerr's billowy nightgown, but they always remain bright and crisp, and never bloom. Close-ups are striking, too, emphasizing the children's fresh-faced innocence, Kerr's frantic emotional state, and Jenkins' patience and concern, while a lengthy superimposition montage is perfectly layered to promote maximum clarity.
Those who own previous editions of 'The Innocents' will be delighted by this transfer's subtle enhancements, and fans of the film shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.
The LPCM mono track was "remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical soundtrack print," and the results are quite extraordinary. Once again, ghost stories - or any supernatural tale - require a heightened sense of sound to create atmosphere and ratchet up tension, and the audio here is both nuanced and robust. Water trickling in a fountain, chirping birds, a ticking clock, the fluttering wings of a flock of doves, crackling embers, creaky floorboards, and bloodcurdling screams are all exceptionally clear and lifelike. Any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been scrubbed away, so subtleties like gentle breezes and pregnant pauses achieve greater impact. Dialogue is always easy to comprehend, and Georges Auric's sparingly employed music score benefits from fine fidelity and tonal depth. Though a surround mix would be optimal, this mono track more than suffices, easily filling the room with a creepy ambience that serves this unnerving tale well.
The only extra on the previous DVD was a paltry trailer, and while Criterion imports that preview into this package, the company also supplies some other noteworthy supplements to flesh out this impressive release.
Introduction by Christopher Frayling (SD, 23 minutes) - The film scholar and historian discusses the background of the movie's production in this 2006 piece shot at Sheffield Park, the actual location of Bly House in 'The Innocents.' In an affable manner, Frayling talks about the autobiographical elements director Jack Clayton shared with the story, the differences between William Archibald's stage play and the film version, and how author Truman Capote contributed a Southern gothic sensibility and a generous helping of Freudian dialogue to the screenplay. He also discusses the Sheffield Park location, the exquisite cinematography of Freddie Francis, the casting of the youngsters, the movie's shocking themes, and the continuing fascination audiences have with 'The Innocents.' This is an informative and entertaining featurette that any fan of this thriller will certainly enjoy.
Audio Commentary - Frayling returns for a superb, captivating commentary that explores 'The Innocents' from a variety of angles and perspectives. With enthusiasm and vigor, Frayling compares the film to Henry James's classic novella, as well as William Archibald's stage adaptation and a Benjamin Britten opea based on the material, citing similarities, differences, and variances in interpretation. He talks about the movie's alternate opening, how director Jack Clayton turned down Cary Grant's request to portray the uncle, the clever use of CinemaScope, Clayton's personal connection to the tale, and how sound is used expressionistically throughout the picture. He also points out a couple of script deletions, discusses the floral imagery that pervades 'The Innocents,' analyzes and interprets the ambiguous plot, and lauds the contributions of Capote, who littered the screenplay with several highly effective double entendres. A fascinating film like 'The Innocents' demands an equally fascinating commentary that can educate, enlighten, and provoke further discussion, and from beginning to end, Frayling delivers the goods. There's not a dull moment in this 100-minute monologue, and for those who are bewitched by this supernatural story, this is required listening.
Interview with John Bailey (HD, 19 minutes) - In this absorbing interview from 2014, the prolific cinematographer outlines the many innovations and artistic touches Freddie Francis employed in 'The Innocents,' such as glass filters to darken the edges of the frame in order to minimize the massive impact of the widescreen canvas. Bailey provides a CinemaScope primer, describes a phenomenon that's present in 'The Innocents' called "the anamorphic mumps," and notes how a skeptical Francis used the Fox-mandated CinemaScope process to the film's advantage on several occasions. He also explains how Francis was able to use candlelight in the movie, and reveals 'The Innocents' was the film of which the two-time Oscar-winning Francis was most proud in his long and distinguished career. A number of rare production stills and film clips illustrate Bailey's points, and help make this piece a wonderful behind-the-scenes examination of a classic film.
Featurette: "Between Horror, Fear, and Beauty" (SD, 14 minutes) - Interviews with film editor Jim Clark, script supervisor Pamela Mann, and director of photography Freddie Francis - all conducted in 2006 - comprise this interesting piece that provides further insight into the production of 'The Innocents.' Clark discusses how the numerous visual effects made the editing process more arduous, and delineates how he constructed the impressive long dissolve and superimposition sequence, while Mann laments the difficulty of matching the various candlelight shots due to the four wicks that were placed in each candle to provide the appropriate amount of light for the scene. We also learn a bit more about the personality of director Jack Clayton and the inimitable input of Truman Capote.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - If 20th Century-Fox wanted to cheapen 'The Innocents' and make people believe it was little more than a schlocky, low-budget shocker, then this preview does the job. The catchphrase "Do they ever return to possess the living?" is ominously repeated several times and splashed across the screen in lettering more akin to a monster movie than a quietly unnerving ghost story. There's almost no connection between the trashy tone of this trailer and the elegance of the actual film, which makes it an interesting curio indeed.
One of the all-time classic thrillers, 'The Innocents' remains a nail-biting exercise in supernatural suspense, distinguished by masterful direction, magnetic performances, and unforgettable atmosphere. This riveting adaptation of Henry James's immortal 'The Turn of the Screw' features one of Deborah Kerr's finest portrayals as the repressed, impressionable governess sent to a remote manor to care for a pair of angelic siblings whom she soon suspects to be possessed by depraved adult spirits. Director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis cast a mesmerizing spell, and Criterion's Blu-ray presentation is a revelation, thanks to stunning video and audio transfers that improve upon the previous DVD release, and an absorbing supplemental package that examines this unnerving film from both production and thematic standpoints. Elegant and understated, yet truly disturbing, 'The Innocents' holds up well over repeat viewings, as varied interpretations of the creepy goings-on and character motivations abound. You don't have to be a scary movie fan to appreciate this masterful chiller, which is guaranteed to both dazzle and haunt you. Highly recommended.