The Proper Atmosphere and a Good Story

         It is interesting to think that, with over a century of movie-monster history, one of the scariest creatures to grace the screen is still nothing more than a small child. Despite leaps and bounds in make-up and special effects, the sound of a young girl's voice singing a few haunting lyrics is still more than enough to send shivers up the spine. The Innocents, directed in 1961 by Jack Clayton and based on Henry James’s 1898 The Turn of the Screw, demonstrates that with the proper atmosphere and a good story, children can be creepy little buggers.

         The two creepy children in question, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), are the niece and nephew of a city gentlemen (Michael Redgrave) who cannot be bothered with the burden of raising children. Instead, he opts to hire Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a governess, to supervise the children at his idyllic country estate. However, the longer Miss Giddens stays in the house, the more she notices that the children's behavior is strange, often mature beyond its years.  When she finally learns about the perverse relationship between the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), and Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the valet, Miss Giddens begins to suspect the restless spirits of the deceased haunt both the house and, more importantly, the children.

         While the writing and performances form the framework of the ambiguity, which is hallmark of The Innocents, it is the combined work of director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis that really focuses the question of Miss Giddens' sanity. Rather than clarifying the reality of the haunting, the imaginative use of the camera only confounds. It becomes apparent early on in the film, through the heavy use of point-of-view camera angles, that much of the on-screen experience is seen strictly through the eyes of Miss Giddens. While this in itself is not unusual, combined with the appearance of Miss Jessel and Quint's ghostly apparitions, it effectively removes the believability of the viewer's own eyes.  Not once in the entire film do we see a single ghost fade away or disappear. Rather, we see the apparition through the eyes of Miss Giddens, the camera shifts away and, when it returns, the apparition is gone, leaving us wondering if what we are seeing is really there–or if we are simply privy to the blossoming madness of a hysterical governess.

Derek Owen

Table of Contents