What makes a good horror movie or novel? For me, it is psychological suspense, well-drawn characters and a good disturbing story. Both the 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, written by Henry James, and its 1951 movie production, The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, I feel are examples of good natural horrors. There are a few issues that are questionable within the stories that help to add to its psychological suspense. These issues include, whether or not the governess is a reliable storyteller, or are we living through the frustrations of her own life and how she intends to project herself onto the rest of the world around her. Another issue asks whether or not the ghosts in the story are real. Another wonders whether or not this story is about a schizophrenic with sexual tensions and curiosities. The Innocents turns the screw on the viewer and thrusts the choice in our minds, allowing us to see what we want to see and perceive the same.
The Innocents is a chilling and psychological horror film about a woman, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) who takes a position as a governess for two children Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) living in a Victorian home. The children, Miss Giddens, and a few servants are the only people that live at the house. The governess is hired by the uncle and legal guardian of the two children, whom we can also assume preferred to answer the call of his carefree bachelor lifestyle, rather than take care of the children. The country estate where the story unfolds, takes place in Bly; and Miss Giddens, upon arrival, perceives it as a Garden of Eden on Earth. The first child that she meets when she arrives is Flora, of whom she thinks is both angelic and sweet. Miles was later sent home from school never to return under suspicious circumstances and almost immediately upon Miles' arrival we can see an attraction that Miss Giddens has towards him. Miles returns to Bly with the demeanor more so of a young adult rather than that of a young boy. Because of Miles' well-beyond-his-year's appearance, Miss Giddens is at first taken with him but then begins to sense that something is not right with him. After being at the estate for a while, Miss Giddens soon begins to see what she believes to be ghosts and also begins to suspect that the children are some how involved with the ghosts. The governess suspicions about both the children and the ghosts are what sets the scene for The Innocents.
The atmosphere of the film was captured in darkness through the use of an all black screen at both the beginning and end of the film. The showing of hands in prayer also creates a sense of suspicion in the audience, as the film makes one wonder what is going to happen. Other eerie sights in the movie that captured the audiences' attention were the contrasts of the blazing light of day, with the ebony black of night. The supposed pureness of the children combined with the luring evil associated with the ghosts also helps to create a nightmare that drives Miss Giddens to seek that truth. A scene that constantly flashes across my mind was the eyes of the valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) that disappeared in the darkness. It is as though I can almost still see them if I close my eyes.
The use of sound effects, such as unknown screaming and shrieking, also helped to create the eerie scene of this horror. Along with the nightmares that the governess experienced at night also came unexplained noises from outside, sudden, wind gusts along with body forms of what she identified to be Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) and Quint. The question that still remains is whether or not the ghosts of the story are real or a test of Miss Giddens' sanity?
As stated previously, a good horror is one that allows the audience to draw its own conclusions about bizarre happenings. In my opinion, I think that the ghosts were not real and that the governess simply was creating a scene to excite her ordinary life. Being the daughter of a parson, she most likely did not do much other than attend church and take care of the house. Without social interaction, she had to develop ways to deal with the day in day out routine of her life. Taking the job at Bly allowed her imagination to soar, as there was a large house in the middle of nowhere. There existed two children who appeared to be so angelic, that they had to have a hidden agenda. And then there was the death of two lovers, with whom the children spent most of their time. Such circumstances allowed the governess to set into motion her own explanation of what may have been going on around her as she always felt as though there were things to be suspicious about. I felt as though the governess used the children as well as ghosts to work out problems that she may have had in her mind. She might have always wanted children; and, then on the other hand, she may be dealing with the lost of a loved one that fell from her life as a child. By combining both of them, she creates the ideal ghost story.
The film is to be commended for its lack of silly special effects that I felt would have destroyed the beauty of the movie. Though the movie lacked fancy special effects, it was still effective in portraying its horrific image to the audience. As stated previously, there are some images that are still able to stick in the minds of the audience like the disappearing eyes or the figure of a person standing by the lake. It may be the fact that deep inside the audience realizes that what happened to Miss Giddens could happen to any one and there is still a possibility that ghosts really do exists. The Innocents joins the club of psychological thrillers that require only the special effects of the mind such as The Sixth Sense and The Others. The mind is our most powerful resource and can add any special effects through questionable thinking. The mind then, is responsible for Turning the Screw.