"O' Willow Waly" and Onscreen Terror in The Innocents

         The Innocents, Jack Clayton's 1961 film adaptation of a theatrical version of Henry James's 1898 The Turn of the Screw, begins as perhaps all horror movies should--in darkness. The Innocents, though, begins in total darkness, and stays that way. Then, the most unsettling song I have ever heard starts coming through the speakers, the screen still dark. Is the screen broken? No, as the black and white distribution company's logo fades in, I realize it is not. This was just the most ingenious opening to a horror movie I have ever seen.

         I have seen a lot of horror movies, both old and new. I should like to say that I am pretty desensitized to it all; but The Innocents, admittedly, scared me; and I chalk it up mostly to the confusing, atmospheric opening.

        The song, called "O' Willow Waly," appears throughout the film, usually when something bad is going to happen; and every time it occurs, the viewers are immediately brought back in to those initial thirty seconds or so where they had no idea what was going except for the song they were hearing.

         That is not to say that "O' Willow Waly" is the only truly terrifying element of The Innocents. Truman Capote and John Mortimer's script, based on William Archibald's 1950 play, The Innocents, is exceedingly smart. For instance, one of the scariest moments in the film comes when Deborah Kerr's Miss Giddens sees her predecessor (Clytie Jessop), who is dead, standing still on the banks of a lake, her eyes fixed on Giddens. This scene left my mouth agape, and I believe the reason why is that this occurred in broad daylight. Most of the time in horror movies (both old and new), the "jump" scenes occur at night, so I had let my guard down.

         Another element of the film that contributed to my fright was the cold, calculating performance of Martin Stephens as the troubled Miles, who may or may not be possessed. The way he delivers lines such as, "Don't scream. It does something to your face. It makes you look ugly," is effortlessly realized and truly chilling.

         All of the above elements ended up eliciting a frisson of fright from me, hardened as I have been by less skillful horror movies than The Innocents.

John Null

Table of Contents