There’s this barrier between younger audiences and “old” movies. Plenty of people, from my age (and I ain’t that young) all the way on down, get a glimpse of black and white on a screen and they’re gone. I get it. I had to do some work to get past it myself. We’re talking about conditioning, about perception, about vision. It’s hard to get viewers who grew up on color images to take a look at black and white. My niece calls them “grey movies.” Many of my friends call them “boring.” To many American moviegoers, anything produced before the 1990s or even within the past decade is considered “old.”
Working from that definition, then, the year 1961 would mark a film as positively ancient, but THE INNOCENTS is one you’ve simply got to exhume from the crypt if you give a damn about scary movies. It’s monumentally creepy. Particularly nowadays, in a era in which huge audiences are somehow satisfied by movies like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY where literally nothing happens, I have to make an impassioned case for a real-deal scary movie like this one. Call it “old” if you want, but at least in THE INNOCENTS, you actually see the ghosts.
THE INNOCENTS has a remarkable and surprising literary pedigree — the script was based on the novella The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James, and co-written by Truman Capote — but it’s a visceral undertaking more than a brainy one; it’s as eerie as a ghost story gets. I was surprised to find out that The Turn Of The Screw was a ghost story. This is why I was so wrong to sleep during English class. I did’t know that as far back as the Henry James era, authors were writing spooky ghost stories with psychosexual subtext and supernatural over-text, but here’s the evidentiary pudding.
Deborah Kerr (FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, THE KING AND I) plays a mannered, clearly repressed woman who is hired as a governess at a remote mansion in the country, where she’s meant to watch over these two spooky little children, a boy and a girl, who have been corrupted by the haunted nature of the estate. The ghosts aren’t just sightings — which are the scary, throat-catching highlights of the film — but they also seem to be halfway-possessions, which leads up to a still-shocking-even-by-today’s-standards kiss between the governess and the pre-adolescent boy. It’s one of the creepiest kisses in cinematic history.
THE INNOCENTS is clearly influential, from the most direct instances, such as in the Nicole Kidman film THE OTHERS (which is a pretty direct ‘homage’), to the more stylistic, such as in plenty of Asian ‘J-horror’ cinema and as in Guillermo Del Toro’s quieter films like THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE. The stark, sweeping, remarkably crystalline black & white cinematography gifted to THE INNOCENTS by Freddie Francis is absolutely a landmark. The sound design is ingeniously eerie, as is the staging, courtesy of director Jack Clayton. Fifty years later, this movie still retains its ability to haunt.
Martin Scorsese lists THE INNOCENTS as one of the scariest movies ever made. Are you prepared to argue with Martin Scorsese about movies? Or would you rather check out a tremendously eerie movie and be creeped out masterfully?
There is always a third, creepier option. Me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb
THE INNOCENTS is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection. Buy it blind if you have to.
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