Ghost Movie of the Month: The Innocents

The Innocents (1961)
Based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw
Screenplay: Truman Capote
Starring: Deborah Kerr

If you’re looking for the perfect babysitter ghost movie, here it is.

Actually, it’s embodiment of a babysitter’s worst nightmare. An isolated house. No power. Polite kids who periodically turn creepy. Ghostly figures. A guardian who doesn’t show up when he says he would. I was mesmerized by this atmospheric tale of child care gone terribly awry.

I was, in fact, babysitting the first time I saw this movie. I was under18—I abandoned the care of strangers’ kids after I started college at 17—and I don’t remember what poor kid had been commended to my care for that evening, but I’m quite sure I didn’t miss any moment of this movie.

In the late nineteenth century, Miss Giddens (played by the great Deborah Kerr) is hired to care for Flora (Pamela Franklin) and her brother, Miles (Martin Stephens). The mansion in which she is sent to work is a bit out of the way, a bit bleak, and inhabited only by Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper (Megs Jenkins), and one or two servants . . . and Flora, a bright, young girl. Mrs. Grose welcomes Miss Giddens warmly, and Flora seems charming, beautifully behaved, a willing student.

Miss Giddens cannot believe her good fortune.

Than, a short time later, Flora’s brother, Miles, is sent home from school for an incident of moral turpitude that is never clearly explained and which both Miss Giddens and the housekeep dismiss as a misunderstanding on the part of the school staff.

And at first this seems to be the case. Miles is as cheerful, well-behaved, and charming as his sister. The children frolic in the house and gardens, attend their lessons, and all seems well.

Of course, occasionally Miles says things that are . . . well, odd. And Miss Giddens begins to believe the siblings are engaged in a giggling, whispered conspiracy to keep secrets from their governess.

Much worse, however, is the appearance of figures who seem to come and go at will. In the garden, birds suddenly fall silent, and a man appears whom, later, when told of the incident by Miss Giddens, the housekeeper identifies as Quint, a valet now dead who was believed to have exercised a corrupting influence on Miles. Quint’s lover, Miss Jessel, dead of suicide, appears on the small island in the ornamental lake, still and observant. In fact, with one exception, these revenants are seen only from a distance. We cannot see them clearly at first, nor do we know where they will turn up next, and the uncertainty heightens the sense of foreboding.

The Innocents combines supernatural horror and a study of psychological decay, never explaining how much of what occurs is real and how much may lie in the mind of Miss Giddens. Dread suffuses this movie, and one of the best aspects is the fact we cannot be sure what it is we dread until the climax, which is surprising, shocking, and—I’ve always loved this—doesn’t indulge in a cheap or easy dismissal of the haunting. Do Quint and Miss Jessel continue to abide within the house and grounds? Perhaps only following generations of children know that answer.

The actors don’t set a foot wrong, physically or verbally. Even the two child actors handle their roles with admirable ease. As the housekeeper, Megs Jenkins portrays the sort of cozy, competent woman I, for one, would love to have care for my house, while at the same time she is suffused with an underlying sense of anxiety about things that happened in the past and those happening in the present. Above all, the movie succeeds because of Deborah Kerr. Kerr portrays a woman whose fundamental calm is pierced by the strange events and sighting, then shattered by her efforts to save the children from the ghostly influences she believes are corrupting them.

In 1961, the NYTimes reviewer wasn’t a fan (you can read the review on the TCM website), but the movie is now considered a classic ninety-nine minutes of masterful horror.

TCM offers interesting information about the filming of the movie, to include comments by the screenwriter, Truman Capote, as well as Deborah Kerr and others involved in the production. Well worth reading.

Rotten Tomatoes ratings for The Innocents are high, deservedly so:

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