An Innocent Fright

     I feel that one of the most effective filmed adaptations we viewed this semester was The Innocents, directed in 1961 by Jack Clayton, from the 1898 Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw. It is not an easy thing to get a creepy feel to a film. Unlike the written word, which has the ability and the time to get inside our heads a little and play with our imagination, film has to use various methods to achieve the same effect, often in two hours or less. The challenge for the film maker, if he or she is to be successful, is to get everything just right. One misstep and there could be laughter where a shiver should be. The Innocents does even the little things correctly and holds the viewer spellbound throughout.

     From its very beginning, where a pair of ghostly hands is seen to rise in seeming supplication, we know we are in for something different. This is not so much an interpretation of every line of dialog as it is an interpretation of style. Careful consideration was given to setting, costumes, lighting, sound and limited special effects to achieve what can only be called creepy. Far superior to films where things unexpectedly jump out at you in an attempt to frighten, films like The Innocents draw one, cast their spell, and intentionally raise the hair on the nape of one's neck.

     The country estate in the film was effectively spooky--vast, old, dark and remote. The grounds were filmed in such a way that even in daylight it appeared overcast and dim. The statuary around the estate seemed somehow alive and threatening. When the action moved indoors, interior shots also successfully captured a feeling of gloom. One found oneself imagining movement in stairways and dimly lit corridors.

     The use of sound and music was appropriate throughout and, thankfully, restrained. A subtle use of music to heighten tension always seems to work better than a jarring blast of a soundtrack. Here the music was beautiful, but haunting in a way quite befitting the story.

     Costumes used in the film also were appropriate. This appeared to be clothing that people actually wore, and did not draw attention to itself with unnecessary color or opulence. It was easy to think of these characters as ordinary people in somewhat extraordinary circumstances, partly because we were not distracted every five minutes with a flashy and fashionable ensemble so common to the so-called costume pictures.

     And finally, the actors themselves played a tremendous part in the overall effectiveness of the film. Rather than hysterics, we were given thoughtful, cautious performances. The children, played by Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, were appropriately strange without appearing cloying. Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens was at first competent and assured in her new job but then became more and more bewildered as the story required. Viewers see most of the action through her eyes and share her fright of those spooky apparitions.

     And the apparitions in The Innocents were quite effective. The appearance of Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) at the window was just as I had imagined it while reading the play. He was at once ominous and threatening, and at the same time otherworldly and out of reach. The appearances of Miss Jessel (Clytyie Jessop), who was always seen from a distance across the lake, were particularly disturbing, more so because we see her in broad daylight and slightly out of focus.

     Taking all this together, I feel that the filmed adaptation of The Innocents quite believably accomplished what many occult or horror flicks fail to do. It scared me!

Wade Kingston

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