By Cleaver Patterson.
As the dark nights draw in and Christmas approaches, what better than to settle down and enjoy a good, old fashioned ghost story. It seems appropriate then that, as part of their Gothic season, the BFI has chosen to screen a classic chiller whose initial release was relatively low-key, yet went on to become one of the most influential horror films ever made. The Innocents (1961) is the brooding adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, starring Deborah Kerr as a Victorian governess sent to look after two young children, played by Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, in a rambling mansion deep in the English countryside. But what makes this black and white film, which used atmosphere and tension rather than splanchnic imagery to create a lasting feeling of dread and unease, work?
The answer may well lie in its combination of three elements seldom found together in one film—and even more rarely within the oft derided genre of horror. With a brilliant story, exquisite production values and superlative cast, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the film is still so popular and beloved amongst connoisseurs of the macabre, where ‘bigger’ horror productions have fallen by the wayside. The American author Henry James was best know for his ‘trans-Atlantic’ literature like The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, which chronicled encounters between monied members of ‘Old World’ Europe and ‘New World’ America, often with tragic results.
However, it was with his Gothic Novella The Turn of the Screw, published in 1898, that he played with the themes of sexual obsession, loneliness and frustration which transcended class and culture barriers, and could be understood by readers throughout the world. Set within the repressed world of Victorian England, the story, told in a first person narrative, describes the increasing paranoia experienced by a young governess sent to a remote country house to look after two seemingly angelic children. Over the course of the story the woman starts to realize that the children are not as innocent as she first believed, and that their relationship with their previous governess and the estate manager, both of whom died under mysterious circumstances, had a deep and malignant grip which is reaching out from beyond the grave. The elements of this unsettling tale—the rambling mansion, deep and twisted relationships between the various characters and a non specific conclusion which left much to the reader’s imagination—made it the perfect story for a film adaptation.
In the years since its publication, the story had seen various interpretations on stage, television and even as an opera by Benjamin Britten. However, it took director Jack Clayton to bring it to the screen in what is now widely consider to be the definitive interpretation of James’ vision. Though there was major American involvement in the production (it was made by 20th Century Fox, whilst one of the screenwriters was Truman Capote of Breakfast at Tiffany’s fame—the other being the English author John Mortimer creator of the English television series Rumpole of the Bailey), it was otherwise a very British affair (appropriate considering James’ love of England—he took British nationality a year before he died in 1916). The depth of vision which gives the film so much of its brooding air of melancholia along the house’s candlelit corridors contrasted by an intense, at times almost artificial, light when the story moves into the sprawling grounds outside, was created by cinematographer Freddie Francis who went on to direct such classics as Hammer’s Paranoiac (1963) and Amicus’ Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965). Art Director Wilfred Shingleton, who had worked on David Lean’s masterpiece Great Expectations (1946) created some wonderfully over the top, yet intimate examples of Victorian interiors which, along with costume designer Sophie Devine’s exquisite reproductions of period costumes, provided a perfect backdrop against which the sinister story unfolds.
However, if the viewer feels suitably unnerved by the ambiance of the film’s setting, it is Deborah Kerr’s central performance as the distressed woman whose concern for her young charges threatens to push her over the edge, which will haunt them long after the film has ended. Kerr, who was no stranger to playing governesses, having previously starred as Anna Leonowens in The King and I (1956), gave a frighteningly realistic performance as by the end she cannot tell who or what is real or a figment of her increasingly overactive imagination. With stellar support from Peter Wyngarde (who later shot to stardom as television’s dandy sleuth Jason King in the 1970s) as the spectral estate manager Peter Quint, and character actress Meg Jenkins as the housekeeper Mrs. Grose (a role she would later repeat in a 1974 television adaptation of The Turn of the Screw), Kerr, in the role which she is said to have considered her personal favorite, gives a performance which, like the ghosts that haunt the empty corridors of the lonely house and its surrounding gardens, will be impressed forever upon the memory of those who see it.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.
The Innocents was released by the BFI on Blu-ray in 2010 and will show as part of their current Gothic season, details of which can be found at: www.bfi.org.uk/gothic.