As someone who hates most of the horror genre, specifically many of the recent films of the mindless slasher, torture porn variety, it is very rare that I come away from a film that truly chills me to the bone. It is also strange that this should happen twice in once week with British director Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) and Charles Laughton's one hit wonder The Night of the Hunter (1955). Both in my opinion are film masterpieces that deal with the corruption of children, utilizing every aspect of filmmaking from manipulations of sound, light, music, composition, and performance in a skillful manner.
The Innocents is the story of an English governess (Miss Giddens), played by the legendary Deborah Kerr, who takes a post as caretaker for two children living in their uncle's mansion in the english countryside. As with many horror films looks are deceiving, and the fairytale grounds and darling children, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens) become grotesque when Miss Giddens suspects that they are being controlled by their former governess and her lover who want to enter the children's bodies to continue their affair in the flesh. Giddens finds out that the two were not careful about their relationship, potentially corrupting the children even if no witchery is involved. Everything the children do appears sinister and adult as she takes up the crusade for their souls. In the end it remains unclear whether Miss Giddens has simply gone mad or the children are truly possessed.
Deborah Kerr was a perfect choice for the sexually repressed English governess who becomes increasingly paranoid and unstrung as the film progresses. She combined her ability to play the perfect, proper lady with a vulnerability and sensuality that created a very unsettling effect in her scenes with young Miles (Martin Stephens) who became a man child that seemed to view Miss Giddens as his lover rather than his governess. In an extremely creepy scene, one that gave 20th Century Fox pause 50 years ago and still resonates today, Miles kisses Miss Giddens goodnight on the mouth in a way that a child would and should not kiss a woman, leaving Giddens speechless and frightened. Though the children are potentially corrupted in the film, Jack Clayton kept the real children innocent by never showing them the script in its entirety. The cast is excellent across the board, with two of the finest children's performances I have ever seen.
Also of great note in the film is the art direction and work of cinematographer Freddie Francis in creating the perfect gothic nightmare, from the bright, airy beginnings and beautiful grounds of the house, to the more odd and unsettling compositions as Giddens suspicions arise, to the increasingly claustraphobic end and denoument.
What I love about this film is the fact that, as is the case with a more recent and equally brilliant horror film El Orfanato (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007) the viewer is left to decide if they want to view the film on a completely supernatural or completely realisitic level, with evidence to support either theory. But even if the viewer decides that ghosts have really taken over the children, the real and terrifying prospect of how adult behavior can harm an impressionable child is ever real and present.
Stay tuned for pt 2 (The Night of the Hunter)