FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Jun 18, 2007

Film Club: The Innocents

Based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents (1961) is a film that addresses themes of corruption and repressed sexuality as it delivers an atmospheric ghost story...maybe. Events throughout leave both the characters and the audience in doubt as to what's real and what's not, right up until the film's ambiguous ending. As a viewer, what you make of The Innocents is entirely up to you, though your interpretation may correlate to the question posed early on in the proceedings: do you have an imagination?

Though at a more advanced age than one would expect for a first-time governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is enthusiastic about the prospect of caring for young Miles (Martin Stephens, Village of the Damned) and Flora (Pamela Franklin, The Legend of Hell House) at the vast country estate, Bly, owned by the children's disinterested uncle (Michael Redgrave).

Nothing at Bly is as it seems, however, and there is a pervading sense of dread and decay despite the bright, sunny appearances: Flora sings sweetly, but the lyrics to "O Willow Waly" reveal that she's singing about a lover dying alone, heartbroken; Miles seems the picture of polite charm, but he's been expelled from school for "corrupting" other students; birds that chirp gaily during the day cry out in pain during the night; white roses throughout the house fall apart at Miss Giddens's touch. Perhaps the most telling example of "evil beneath the surface" occurs as Miss Giddens gazes at a statue in the garden, when a large black beetle crawls out of the smiling face of a child.

Soon enough Miss Giddens begins to see the ghostly figures of a man and a woman around Bly. No one else confesses to seeing the apparitions- do they exist at all, or are they merely the product of Miss Giddens's over-active imagination? Regardless, the story of the phantom inhabitants begins to unfold: the man is Peter Quint, the uncle's valet, Miles's hero, and by all accounts a twisted and cruel man in life. The woman is Miss Jessel, Quint's lover and the children's governess. After Quint was found dead on the grounds of the estate, Miss Jessel came down with a serious case of "mad grief" and died shortly thereafter. Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the spirits of the dead lovers are possessing Miles and Flora, and she takes it upon herself to save them: "All I want to do is save the children, not destroy them. More than anything I love children. More than anything."

The Innocents never lets on as to what's really going on at Bly. Is Miss Giddens really saving the children from corruption, or is she the one corrupting them? Are there sado-masochistic ghosts roaming the halls and grounds of the estate, or is the sexually repressed Miss Giddens simply overtaken by stories of the wild and terrible lovers? As there are no definitive answers to any of these questions, it's up to the viewer to interpret everything that's laid out during the film- an approach that's sure to frustrate folks who want everything tied up in a neat package. I'll admit, when the film was over I had a bit of that "Wait...what? So is...wait, that's it?" feeling; it's always a shock when horror films make you do some work and make you think. Undoubtedly, The Innocents is a movie that rewards repeat viewing.

Technically, the film is nothing short of exquisite. The performances are pitch-perfect, the cinematography by Freddie Francis is lush and gorgeous, and somehow everything in the film feels essential to the proceedings. Director Jack Clayton and writer Truman Capote ensure that there are no extraneous shots or dialogue in the movie.

Though The Innocents surely draws comparisons to its contemporary ghost story, The Haunting, it's far less flashy than Robert Wise's film...which is an unusual statement considering how unflashy The Haunting is. What I mean, I think, is that I connected to The Innocents on a cerebral level more than a gut level- most likely The Innocents won't leave you cowering beneath your blankets in fear, but nonetheless it's an unsettling film that burrows deep into your brain.

You know, like that worm thing in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. After all, what higher praise is there for a film?

Film Club Coolies:
$7 Popcorn
Askewed Views


Unknown said...

Just THINKING of that worm thing gives me a chill. Not to mention an irrational fear of earwigs.

This was a good pick, Stacie. Though, I have to admit, I was reluctant going into it (for no real reason, to be honest). I loved the ambiguity throughout, I love that nothing was pounded into your skull to show that it's this or that. I love that you do, really, have to sit back and reflect on it.

I have to say, I really enjoy doing the film club reviews. You never seem to pick movies that I would pick up and watch on my own (except for the descent, which I had seen previously).

Anonymous said...

Dang, girl, HIGHbrow! Henry "Mack Daddy" James! What's HAPPENED to you?

(Thanks, actually. Sounds like something I'd dig...)

Anonymous said...

Yeah...'The Skeleton Key' just blatantly ripped off aspects of this.

Stacie Ponder said...

Thanks, dreamy! I try to pick unusual titles, or at least stuff I haven't seen yet. It's a crap shoot, but I think our batting average is pretty good so far.

Bill, don't even make me get all Dostoyevsky up in here!

rural- I've yet to see that one, though I've heard it wasn't SO terrible. Of course, if it's pulling material from such a great source...

Anonymous said...

I LOVE this movie. Especially the way Freddie Francis cuts with the camera, gliding from one perfect composition to another. Polanski must have been taking notes! And speaking for myself: it DID scare the shit out of me...

Did you know that Dennis Cozzalio did the subtitling for this DVD?

By the way, Stacie: I am in SERIOUS awe of your artwork. You could teach me a thing or two (or three hundred) about inking...

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a bit late, but here's the link to my review:

Stacie Ponder said...

Thanks Peet! Inkers usually get no respect. :D

FatalPierce said...

Better late than never right? I had a perfectly logical excuse for my tardiness, but the Star Trek II reference blew my mind and erased several months worth of memories.

I put a little something up at

Anonymous said...

can anybody give a tip where to finde the notes/score for that willow song online? thank you

Dean Treadway said...

Wow. I'm way late posting on this one. But I had to because THE INNOCENTS is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I was pretty impressed that you got all serious on us, Stacy. You're the best; you are always surprising me!

Here's the link to my review, on my website filmicability with Dean Treadway.

bean said...

I love this film.

I'm trying to find an mp3 or wav of the singing of "O Willow Waly" at the beginning of the movie. Any idea where I might find it?

Thanks. :)