The Innocents (1961)

This movie freaked me out. I literally still have chills as I write this. It is a deeply chilling story that builds to one of the scariest climaxes I’ve seen. This movie is incredible.

Based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the film follows Deborah Kerr as Ms. Giddens a governess who travels to Bly Manor to look after Flora. (For anyone following along with all my reviews, this is the same story that The Haunting of Bly Manor is based on. It felt fitting to finish that series and watch this movie on the same day.) Things seem idyllic until Flora’s brother Miles is expelled from school and has to return home to Bly. Suddenly outnumbered Ms. Giddens is faced with the prospect that something is very wrong with these children.

Beginning at the very beginning, the film opens with 45 seconds or so of a black screen with a child’s voice singing a simple tune that becomes more and more haunting as it is repeated throughout the film. This is a bold opening move that sets the audience off immediately. Throw all your expectations out the window, this movie is doing something very different.

Every element of this movie is absolutely incredible. The cinematography is some of the best I’ve seen. It is filmed in Cinemascope wide screen. That wide screen is used to create some of the most amazing compositions in any film let alone horror film. It is shot with a stunning deep focus style that allows the actors to move freely within the frame while remaining in focus. It creates a stunningly claustrophobic effect that makes the characters feel always uneasy and off balance. The lighting is eerie and moody. The effect is truly mesmerizing.

The soundtrack is also unsettling. It uses every sound to create unease and paint a vivid picture of Ms. Giddens’ internal state. We hear what she hears. There is a wonderful sequence in the middle of the film in which Ms. Giddens is overwhelmed by the sounds she hears in the house one night. Voices, banging, and creaks all build to a horrifying crescendo.

The performances are excellent. Deborah Kerr gives a truly magnificent turn as Ms. Giddens. She manages to convey that this woman is either perfectly sane and dealing with ghosts in the house, or completely insane and in need of a straight jacket. The way she is able to balance those two elements and walk that tightrope is breathtaking to watch. Her every gesture and movement seems tuned to moves the audience one way or the other on her side or terrified for her sanity. Martin Stephens plays the young Miles, and he is one of the creepiest kids in any movie ever! He is unreal in this movie. He was eleven at the time and like Kerr manages to convince us at times that he is an average child, at other times like he is a grown man trapped in a child’s body. The final builds to a climactic scene between Miles and Ms. Gidden that is so well written and acted that we are left swinging wildly between believing that Miles is lying and that he’s telling the truth. It is one of the best scenes I’ve seen in a long time.

Much has been written about this film. It is the subject of much scholarly debate and discussion. It is held up as an exemplar of Henry James adaptations. Its depiction of repressed sexuality and psychological trauma is widely regarded as some of the best on film and with good reason. This film is dripping with subtext and deeper meaning as well as being terrifying. I could write another ten pages about this movie. It scared the crap out of me without a single jump scare. It got under my skin in a way few films do. This is a masterpiece plain and simple.

It is totally my cup of tea. A+

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