From a solid black screen, the sound of a child, eerily singing an echoing lullaby is the first indication that the film that follows is one of a creepy and spine chilling nature. The screen remains blank for a full 44 seconds before the 20th Century-Fox studio logo slowly presents itself, the sing-song voice continuing in the background. Thus begins The Innocents (1961), a ghost story of high artistic quality. A work of psychological horror as opposed to physical. There is no gore, nor are there monsters. The principals involved are actually quite attractive; beautiful, charming children, the lovely albeit prim governess, even the ghost seen in close up is ruggedly handsome. All of which allows the imagination of the viewer to expand even further than if physical ugliness were laid before them.
When I first saw The Innocents, many years ago, I wasn't quite sure how I felt about it. I certainly didn't dislike it and I appreciated its paranormal themes, but its vagueness about some of these themes was something I wasn't used to as a teenager. However, upon later viewings with a more mature and discriminating eye, these ambiguities showed themselves as examples of masterful creativity on the part of producer/ director Jack Clayton. Clayton had been nominated for an Oscar two years prior for Room at the Top and was establishing himself as a quality director.
Based on Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw, the film opens to an interview between a wealthy Victorian Englishman and Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), candidate for governess to his very young niece and nephew, who live away from him in his country estate. A self proclaimed "very selfish fellow," The Uncle, as he is billed, asks that the inexperienced caregiver take complete charge of the youngsters, as he wants no part in their upbringing. The former nanny, Miss Jessel, died and Miss Giddens would replace her as sole guardian. Upon her acceptance of the job, the attractive spinster is taken to the beautiful but solitary estate where she meets the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), the female half of her enchanting charge. Miles (Martin Stephens), Flora's brother is away at boarding school. Almost immediately, the governess receives word from the boy's school that he is expelled for corrupting the minds of the other lads. Mrs. Grose finds this impossible to believe, as she knows him as a spirited but innocent and loving boy. Upon his arrival home, the new governess finds Miles to be just as Mrs. Grose described; charming, outgoing and affectionate. They form a cheerful, caring bond, with Miss Giddens doting on the youthful pair.
The blissful existence discovered by the nanny is interrupted when strange occurrences take place in and around the manor house. The children become sly and secretive and Giddens starts to see a man around the place that she recognizes from a photo to be the former valet, Peter Quint. But as Mrs. Grose tells her, "It can't be, you see he's dead. Quint is dead." More eerie shenanigans and the vision of Miss Jessel looking very much alive lead to more questioning of Mrs. Grose, who reveals that the former governess and valet Quint were lovers. "Rooms, used by daylight as though they were dark woods." Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the two spirits are possessing the bodies of the children for their own evil purposes, but how can she eradicate them and save her precious wards?
The creepy nuances of The Innocents is well paced, moderately at first then building the suspense to a crescendo of rapid pace encounters of a dark nature. The music box melody from the films' introduction is sporadically scattered about for a most chilling effect. Another spooky scene is the eerie game of hide and seek between Miss Giddens, Flora and Miles. As the governess goes in search of the hidden tykes, she encounters in the decrepit, dusty attic, a toy clown jack in the box, the head of which is mysteriously bobbing about. The Gothic feel of the film is achieved with outstanding lighting and camera work. There are hints of Jane Eyre and even The Uninvited (1944), just as there are hints of this film in the 2001 Nicole Kidman yarn, The Others.
Deborah Kerr gives a memorable performance as Miss Giddens. The actress touches ever so slightly on her characters repressed sexuality and the scenes of the governess and young Miles in a mouth on mouth kiss are still considered racy even today. The Innocents was not the first nor the last time Kerr would play a governess. Five years earlier, she immortalized the role of Anna, governess to the royal children of Siam in The King and I and in 1964, she would again play caregiver to the young in Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden. The child actors, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, were not allowed to see the entire script due to its adult nature. Their portrayals were eerily sublime and Franklin would go on to a fairly prosperous career. A role I found particularly favorable was that of young Flora's pet tortoise. His name is Rupert.