This 2020, every Tuesday I will reviewing a horror film, and this week we have 1961’s The Innocents.
This week marks the first time I have reviewed a film for Horror Tuesday that was not made in the 21st century. It makes the first time that I have reviewed a properly, old-fashioned black-and-white horror film. It also marks the first time I have reviewed a film that is often called “important”, and has been called a major influence on a variety of horror films, including The Orphanage, which I reviewed two weeks ago.
The film is one of the many adaptations of the 1898 horror novella, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. One of the most recent adaptation include the 2019 film, The Turning, starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard, and it has been announced that it will be the basis of the second season of the brilliant Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, to be released in 2020.
The plot revolves around Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), who applies for a job as a governess, for a wealthy bachelor, who wants Gibbens to look after his niece, Flora, so he can carry with his bachelor lifestyle. Meanwhile, his nephew, Miles is currently away at boarding school. Giddens is given the job, and develops friendships with Flora and the housekeeper, Mrs. Goose (Megs Jenkins) but things start to turn sour when Miles returns after being expelled for being a “bad influence” on his peers. Soon enough, she starts to become suspicious of the strange behaviour of the children (or “the innocents”, as she calls them), and is irked by the news that two of the house’s former employees (including the former governess) had died under previous circumstances.
The film remains such an important horror film, and such a classic to this day is the brilliant atmosphere and mood that the film creates. Much in the same way as a lot of ghost house horror films (including The Orphanage), the film trades cheap “jump-scares” for more of a slow-building sense of tension and dread that builds throughout the film.
One of the many ways that the movie does this is from the performances all across the board. Kerr is very impressive, especially because, in a similar way to many performances in horror films, she is mainly reacting to something or being terrified, but she never makes that feel one-note or over-the-top. Who is most impressive, however, is the performances from the children – Martin Stephens (who plays Miles) and Pamela Franklin (Flora), who brilliantly perform on that line of being cute but also creepy.
What is often most discussed about this film, however, is how influential it is in terms of film-making. One of it’s most significant techniques is it’s use of deep focus, which is where a shot features two characters and the audience can clearly see both of them clearly in the shot. This sort of technique is used in a variety of horror films, both classic (like The Shining (1980) and Rosemary’s Baby (1969)), and recent (like Us (2019), The Perfection (2019) and It Follows (2014)).
This technique, mainly because it does not end up using a lot of editing, creates a very slow and tense atmosphere, and this is probably why it is used in a lot of horror films. The director has also said that this technique is effective because it creates a sense of claustrophobia, as we can see both characters squished together in the same frame.
Another important technique that the film uses is the film’s editing. The film uses a lot of dramatic fades – one of the most dramatic uses of this is an early scene when Flora is smiling in a sinister fashion and it fades to Kerr’s face, and this also contributes to the film’s surreal and tense atmosphere. The film’s fade editing is also used effectively in a sequence where Gibbons is sleeping, and the camera cuts to a variety of images, including the children, and some sinister things happening in the house. This use of editing felt strange, intoxicating, and of course, very innovative (even for a film released in the 60s), and continues to contribute to the film’s surreal atmosphere.
Although, the film is more of a gentle, subtle and creepy horror film, the film does not shy away from proper, real scares at times. Two of the biggest scares include a former employee of the house, Peter Quint (played with brilliant menace by Michael Redgave) that suddenly turns up out of the blue, and surely terrifies the audience. The great thing about these scares, however, is that it skewered the “quiet, quiet, bang” rhythm of many scary scenes in certain movies and trusts the audience to play attention and get it.
Overall, The Innocents remains a really brilliant and wonderful horror film that completely holds up today, and you can see how influential it’s film-making is to the horror genre and films overall.
Next Week: [rec] (2007)