THE INNOCENTS (1961) Review


Directed by Jack Clayton
Written by Henry James (novel), John Mortimer, William Archibald, & Truman Capote (screenplay)
Starring Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, & Megs Jenkins

Having seen THE OTHERS and THE ORPHANAGE before seeing THE INNOCENTS, I have to say, the power behind those two amazing haunted house films isn’t completely lessened knowing that a film much like the both of them existed almost fifty years before it. But it does let me know that they might not have been as original as I originally thought. THE OTHERS is almost an outright remake when it comes to the performance given by Nicole Kidman and the one here by Deborah Kerr. Both play well to do women with good intentions in their hearts and minds. Both also play frail women who raise hand to mouth and brow when something frightening happens. These dainty flowers are always good to cast in a horror film because a) the look of horror on their faces often escalates the horrors they are experiencing and b) the horrors seem all the more terrifying when pit against a protagonist so fair.

In my interview with James Wan & Leigh Whannell, they cited THE INNOCENTS as a major influence to INSIDIOUS. I had heard of the film over the years, but had yet to see it. But if this column has done anything, it’s made me seek out films I’ve wanted to experience for years. In this case, I was treated to a classic tale of paranoia and the supernatural, where the lines between what is real and what isn’t are blurred. THE INNOCENTS begins with a little girl singing a haunting song as our star Deborah Kerr is praying for the safety of the children. This juxtaposition of a haunting lullaby set to dark tones of desperation has been done since this film many times, but here the mix of sound and image sets the table for spooky things to occur.

There are plenty of scenes where a shadow is seen crossing a hallway or a ghostly image is seen by Kerr in the distance. The fact that this film is grainy and in black and white only intensifies the scares as these forms are just out of focus enough to be read as human, but lack the distinction of a solid form. Every time Kerr sees one of these forms is a chilling moment and as the apparitions appear with more frequency toward the end, the film gets all the more disquieting. In the end, this adaptation of Henry James THE TURN OF THE SCREW written by the one and only Truman Capote is a meticulous and thrilling descent into madness tale. I love the ambiguity of the film where you really don’t know if the ghostly images exist or if it’s all in Kerr’s mind. This is a horror film sophisticated and ahead of its time. There’s even a somewhat uncomfortable romance of sorts between Kerr and the young boy that is creepy beyond belief. This film had balls to pull off some of the stuff it did in 1961.

Wan and Whannell cite THE INNOCENTS as inspiration for their attention to sound and ghostly encounters in INSIDIOUS. I can see that. But I liken this one more to THE OTHERS in its use of children and a frail yet stern central figure, with the latter half resembling THE ORPHANAGE in the manner that woman confronts the ghostly images in the end. THE INNOCENTS is definitely a frightening tale and if you’re like me and loved THE OTHERS, THE ORPHANAGE, and INSIDIOUS, you may want to seek out one of the films that started it all.

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