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THE INNOCENTS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Deborah Kerr, Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Megs Jenkins
Director: Jack Clayton
Audio: English Stereo 2.0, Spanish 1.0
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Black & white, 2.35:1 widescreen or 1.33:1 pan & scan
Studio: 20th CenturyFox
Features: Trailers
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: September 6, 2005

We lay, my love and I beneath the weeping willow,
But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree,
Singing "O Willow Waly" by the tree that weeps with me,
Singing "O Willow Waly" till my lover returns to me.
We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow,
But now alone I lie.  O willow I die, O willow I die...

Film ****

The Henry James novella "The Turn of the Screw" has been the basis for several screen adaptations over the years.  None, however, is more acclaimed than Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), regarded as a classic of the horror genre.  Relying chiefly upon sound effects and atmospheric settings to achieve its horrific chills and sense of foreboding unease, The Innocents is old-school horror at its finest.

The style of psychological horror demonstrated in The Innocents was popularized in the 1940's by Val Lewton, whose RKO horror films remain highly effective even today.  Embracing a "less is more" mentality, the Lewton films empowered the limitless depths of the human imagination to supply what limited budgets could not.  Even after his death, Lewton's protégés would honor his brand of horror through such later classics as Curse of the Demon (by Jacques Tourneur) and The Haunting (by Robert Wise).  Jack Clayton's The Innocents is clearly an homage to Lewton-esque horror.

The Innocents centers around the uncanny relationship between a repressed new English governess, Miss Gibbens (Deborah Kerr), and the two orphans placed under her care.  Miss Gibbens avows to a deep devotion to children - "I love children, more than anything.  They need affection, love, someone who will belong to them and to whom they will belong."

In contrast to Miss Gibbens' nurturing and caring nature, the children's uncle is a callous and indifferent gentleman.  Although he has been the guardian for the boy Miles (Martin Stephens) and his sister Flora (Pamela Franklin) since the unexpected deaths of their parents, the selfish and emotionally distant uncle cannot be bothered with details concerning the children's upbringing.  Instead, during an initial interview with Miss Gibbens for the post of governess, he expresses a desire to simply remove himself entirely from all such responsibilities beyond providing his nephew and niece with food, a home far from him, and no want of companionship in a governess.  Having little inclination to involve himself further with the children, the uncle fully entrusts Miss Gibbens with complete authority in all matters pertaining to their well-being and education. 

After Miss Gibbens arrives at the stately Victorian country manor, home to the children, she quickly learns about the strange fate of the previous governess.  A Miss Jessel by name, this young lady had passed away quite mysteriously along with her secret lover and the manor's former groundskeeper, Quint.  Since their deaths, the manor has become a more somber place, possibly a haunted one.  The children have been separated, Flora remaining on the grounds while Miles pursues his studies away at a boys' academy.  But no sooner does the new governess Miss Gibbens arrive then Miles is expelled and sent home from school for reasons unclear but perhaps associated with his exhibition of very disturbing behavior.

What has possessed Miles to act in such an unseemly manner as to compel academic expulsion?  Miles is unfailingly mute on the matter, quickly changing the subject whenever it is broached.  And why, after Miles's return, does Flora begin to act so peculiarly as well, resorting to fits of hysteria at any provocation?  Miss Gibbens begins home tutorial sessions for the children, but she wonders if the enigmatic visions which have begun to haunt the manor grounds, even in broad daylight, are not somehow related to the children's bizarre behavior.

As Miss Gibbens struggles to unravel the confluence of mysteries and crises thrust so suddenly upon her, she begins to suspect that forces beyond natural explanation are indeed at work in the country manor.  Perhaps there are restless spirits still clinging to some semblance of mortal existence; perhaps the spirits of Miss Jessel and her lover Quint are not yet at rest.  Miles, in the absence of a father figure, had attached himself devotedly to Quint, just as Flora had been quite fond of her former governess.  Could the spirits of these deceased lovers be attempting to possess the children's bodies in a macabre sequelae of their clandestine affair, one that had ended so tragically?  Are the children then truly innocent in this matter, or are they somehow culpable?

The Innocents closes as it begins, with credits lingering over the praying hands of the governess.  But what might initially have been interpreted as tearful or woeful laments may harbor, by the film's conclusion, a possible suggestion of guilt-stricken penitence.  One might argue that Miss Gibbens is too inexperienced with matters of child psychology to handle the difficult task of caring for these disturbed children.  With little guidance or instruction from their uncle, Miss Gibbens is perhaps unable to differentiate between truth and the games that children will play.  Perhaps, her blind yet professed devotion to these children is her downfall and theirs as well.  Or perhaps malevolent spirits do indeed dwell upon the manor grounds, awaiting an unguarded moment to thwart Miss Gibbens's earnest efforts to protect the children from darker purposes.

As a treatise upon sexual repression and Victorian mores, The Innocents offers many interpretations of its ghostly visions.  Whether these apparitions are real or merely fabrications of Miss Gibbens's fragile and disintegrating state of mind is left to the viewer to decide.  Although blood and gore play no role in The Innocents, the film remains by any measure a true classic of the horror genre.

Video ***

The Innocents is presented on a double-sided single layer disc.  One side contains the widescreen version, and the other side holds the pan & scan version.  The black and white images are quite clear with sharp delineation of contrast levels and gray-scales, even in the numerous night sequences.  Aside from some minor age-related blemishes, this film looks generally very good.

Audio ***

Audio is English stereo or Spanish monaural.  The soundtrack is relatively clean in this dialogue-heavy film.  Yet, much like Robert Wise's The Haunting, The Innocent also relies to a great extent upon sonic bumps and cackles to truly weave its web of terror.  Happily, the audio on this DVD preserves the essence of those creepy sounds, without which the film would probably lose a great deal of its horror content.

Features ˝*

Aside from dull promo pages about some catalog films, there are just theatrical trailers for The Innocents, the laughably bad The Cabinet of Caligari (NOT the silent film classic), the very scary and excellent The Legend of Hell House (also with Pamela Franklin), and the indescribably campy Phantom of the Paradise.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The screenplay for The Innocents was co-written by Truman Capote.

Summary:

The Innocents is a first rate Lewton-esque horror film.  Fans of vintage psychological terror should definitely check out this chilling classic, arguably the finest adaptation of the Henry James novella "The Turn of the Screw."

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