THE INNOCENTS. 1961. DIRECTED BY JACK CLAYTON. STARRING DEBORAH KERR, MICHAEL REDGRAVE, MEGS JENKINS, PETER WYNGARDE, CLYTIE JESSOP, MARTIN STEPHENS AND PAMELA FRANKLIN. REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
This is a rather superior British supernatural gothic horror film. Yes, that’s a lot of adjectives, but believe me when I say that it’s worth it. The film is based on the novel by Henry James, THE TURN OF THE SCREW, which was first published in 1898. The book in turn would appear to draw on a real-life murder case for inspiration. The case was a real humdinger of a Victorian whodunnit-slash-murder mystery. If you bear with me a minute, I’ll give you the gist of it.
In 1860, a three-year-old boy called Saville Kent was brutally murdered at his home in the English village of Road, five miles from the town of Trowbridge. Five years later, after suspicion had fallen on almost everyone in the household, Saville’s older sister Constance confessed to his murder. She said that she had done it to avenge her deceased mother, who had been usurped by the childrens’ governess, Miss Pratt. Miss Pratt had in turn gone on to marry Samuel Kent, the father of the family, and she then became the mother of Saville. Because of her tender years when she committed the crime, Constance Kent was spared the death penalty. Instead, she spent twenty years in prison.
It was certain enough that Constance killed the boy, because she knew things that only the killer could have known. Because of certain little inconsistencies in her story, however, many people believed that Constance had not been alone in her crime. It was felt by many that her brother William, younger than Constance by two years, had helped her to murder Saville, and that Constance was shielding him to allow him to be free to live his own life. In fact, William Saville-Kent went on to become a famous naturalist and author of one of the most important works on the Great Barrier Reef ever written.
The theme of brothers and sisters sharing a dark secret was explored not only by Henry James in THE TURN OF THE SCREW but also by Wilkie Collins in THE MOONSTONE and Charles Dickens in his final, unfinished work, EDWIN DROOD. In the film THE INNOCENTS, brother and sister Miles and Flora are keeping an unsavoury, unhealthy secret, the kind to which children should not be exposed. It is into this unwholesome set-up that governess Miss Giddens, beautifully played by Deborah Kerr, arrives in blissful ignorance of what she’s letting herself in for.
Miss Giddens has been engaged by the childrens’ uncle and guardian. He’s a bit of a cold fish, this uncle. He wants to live his own life free from encumbrances and entanglements while the children and the staff who care for them remain virtually buried in Bly, his country estate. He wishes Miss Giddens to take on sole responsibility for his niece and nephew. He does not wish to be contacted by her with regard to their well-being or any other matter pertaining to the two poor little blighters. Only when he is absolutely certain that Miss Giddens understands his wishes and will carry them out to the letter does he engage her to be the childrens’ new governess.
Bly is a magnificent home and Miss Giddens is totally blown away by both the mansion itself and the fabulous and extensive grounds in which it stands. The film is in black-and-white but that only adds to the beauty of this utterly impressive country estate rather than detracting from it. Mrs. Grose the housekeeper is warm and friendly and only too delighted to have another adult female around the place. Flora, the little girl of whom Miss Giddens is to take charge, is delighfully pretty and sweet and easy enough to manage. So far, observes Miss Giddens, everything in the garden is lovely. What could possibly go wrong…?
Even when Miles, Flora’s older brother, is expelled from school in somewhat mysterious circumstances and sent home to Bly in disgrace, Miss Giddens is still not terribly rattled. After all, Miles is a charming little scallywag, if a little precocious for his tender years. She is confident that she can provide care and schooling for both children together. It is not long, however, before the earnest and eager-to-succeed Miss Giddens starts to feel that something is horribly amiss in Bly…
The nightmare begins when she sees a man up on the roof of the house, a man whose physical description fits that of Peter Quint, the former valet to the childrens’ uncle. That’s all well and good so far, except for the fact that Quint is dead, and so is the sinister woman who watches Flora at play from across the lake. Her name is Miss Jessel, and when she lived she was the childrens’ governess. Why are this ghostly pair, who in life were dysfunctional lovers to whose abusive and blatantly sexual relationship the children were frequently exposed, still hanging around Bly…?
When a terrified Miss Giddens finally realises that the evil pair have somehow taken possession of the two previously innocent children and filled them with a sickeningly unhealthy sexual knowledge inappropriate to their years, the race is on to save the childrens’ souls and even, possibly, their lives.
I first watched the film late at night when I was dead-tired after a long day and my altered state of consciousness imparted a sort of surreal feeling to the ghostly- and ghastly- happenings at Bly. The house of shadows and spectres held me in its grip from start to finish. The climax is stunningly unexpected and the scenes in which the darkly glowering Miss Jessel stands silently gazing at Flora from across the lake will remain imprinted in my mind for a long time, probably forever. The film is a masterclass in gothic horror. If you like that kind of thing and you haven’t already seen it, you shouldn’t let even one more day pass by before you do so.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based performance poet, novelist, film blogger, sex blogger and short story writer. She has given more than 200 performances of her comedy sex-and-relationship poems in different venues around Dublin, including The Irish Writers’ Centre, The International Bar, Toners’ Pub (Ireland’s Most Literary Pub), the Ha’penny Inn, Le Dernier Paradis at the Trinity Inn and The Strokestown Poetry Festival.
Her articles, short stories and poems have appeared in The Metro-Herald newspaper, Ireland’s Big Issues magazine, The Irish Daily Star, The Irish Daily Sun and The Boyne Berries literary journal. In August 2014, she won the ONE LOVELY BLOG award for her (lovely!) horror film review blog. She is addicted to buying books and has been known to bring home rain-washed tomes she finds on the street and give them a home.
She is the proud possessor of a pair of unfeasibly large bosoms. They have given her- and the people around her- infinite pleasure over the years. She adores the horror genre in all its forms and will swap you anything you like for Hammer Horror or JAWS memorabilia. She would also be a great person to chat to about the differences between the Director’s Cut and the Theatrical Cut of The Wicker Man. You can contact her at:
1) ‘… BY A WOMAN WALKING HER DOG…’
2) A WRITER’S JOURNEY
3) ANNA MEETS COUNT DRACULA
4) ANOTHER FIFTY REALLY RANDOM HORROR FILM REVIEWS TO DIE FOR…
5) CANCER BALLS
6) CATCH OF THE DAY
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