Saturday, August 5, 2017


"It's time to speak of unspoken things...."
Ad tagline for Joseph Losey's Secret Ceremony (1969)

Ghost stories have always been a bit of a challenge for me. Not so much in literature, where my imagination is free to conjure up whatever horrors necessary to raise the hairs on the back of my neck and get the goosebumps tingling; but most definitely in film. There I find the visual medium’s gift for literalism is paradoxically at odds with the degree my imagination and mind's eye need to be involved in order for ghosts to seem even remotely scary.
Through the magic of special effects, films are ideally suited to granting vivid, tangible realism to even the most fanciful narratives; thus, the representational side of ghost stories—materialized apparitions, floating objects and the like—has always been well within the scope of where motion pictures excel. But too often in the attempt to provide solid scares, ghost story movies fall prey to an over-reliance on rote genre devices like: loud noises, jump cuts, the scope of the ghost's powers, the grotesqueness of their appearance, the malevolence of their actions, etc. All standard suspense/horror devices which are fine in and of themselves, but in the supernatural realm tend to turn ghost stories into little more than paranormal stalker thrillers.

Since what has always creeped me out the most about ghost stories is the mere "idea" of ghosts—that the dead retain a presence and consciousness of life—the literal depiction of phantasms onscreen isn't enough to elicit much of a response from me. In fact, when it comes to ghosts in films, my experience has been that the more over-emphatic the visuals, the more muted its power to genuinely scare me.  
Authors and filmmakers tend to agree that the scariest, most vivid horrors take place in the mind. So, when a movie comes along that appears to have its priorities in order (revealing less, calling on viewers to use their imaginations more) and takes the time and effort to really mess with my head (allowing the visual aspects of the narrative to assert themselves in service of, and in deference to, the engagement of the viewer's imagination); then I feel as though I’m in good hands.

When this occurs (as it frequently does in the thrillers of Hitchcock, Polanski, and Clouzot), I’m comfortable suspending my disbelief and surrendering to the full arsenal of cinema’s storytelling vocabulary—music, cinematography, performance, atmosphere, ambiguity, language—because my active participation as a viewer has always been a considered part of the equation.
In other words, in order for it to work, the film needs me to be alert and paying attention. All manner of information is hidden in plain sight on the screen, but the filmmaker who respects the symbiotic partnership of audience/showman knows better than to hand me everything; he/she knows that my enjoyment of said film will be richer if I am trusted and called upon to discover things for myself.

To me, this is the hallmark of any well-made film, but when speaking of horror and suspense, it's absolutely essential. One film which accomplishes all of the above spectacularly, while also embodying the cinematic principle I call "the eloquence of ambiguity," is Jack Clayton's masterpiece The Innocents.
Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens
Martin Stephens as Miles
Pamela Franklin as Flora
Megs Jenkins as Mrs. Grose
Michael Redgrave as The Uncle

William Archibald’s 1950 play The Innocents, adapted from Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, serves as the source for Jack Clayton’s decorously brooding 1961 film adaptation. This assured sophomore effort by the Oscar-nominated director of Room at the Top (1959) boasts a screenplay by Truman Capote and playwright/screenwriter John Mortimer (Bunny Lake is Missing), who contributed scenes and a touch of Victorian verisimilitude to the dialogue.

And the Victorian setting, with its demand for propriety and the appearance of order at all costs, is every bit a character in this ghost story as is the pervading presence of the tale's no-longer-living lovers. It’s a ghost story best whispered and a dark poem of life lingering, one befitting the somber corners and shadowy hallways of a gothic mansion.
The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens; a naïvely pious governess dispatched to a remote country estate which she comes to fear is haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor (Miss Jessel) and a valet of bestial repute named Peter Quint. Both of whom died under mysterious circumstances on the estate not long before, yet still wish to make their presences felt. Compounding her dread is the mounting certainty that the nature and intent of the haunting is the moral corruption of the two children left in her charge: angelic, guilelessly morbid Flora (Franklin), and charming, disturbingly mature Miles (Stephens).
The film’s slowly intensifying disquietude—the narrative turn of the screw—arises out of both uncertainty and ambiguity. Uncertainty as to whether the children truly are the innocents they appear to be, or are, in fact, wily co-conspirators in league with the phantoms. Ambiguity relating to the possibility that the spectral terrors befalling Bly House are not real at all, but figments of Miss Giddens’ imagination; the fevered manifestations of her repressed emotions.

More than just a faithful adaptation of a literary classic, The Innocents is a visually stunning elucidation of the novella's themes. Taking great pains to distance itself from the full-color, purple gothic of the then-popular Hammer series of horror films, this British production has pedigree and craftsmanship oozing like ectoplasm from every frame.
Filmed in glorious black and white that grows increasingly starker as the film progresses,
the cinematographer is two-time Oscar winner Freddie Francis (who has the dubious distinction of being the director of Trog, Joan Crawford's last film and a horror of a different stripe). Atypically for the genre, The Innocents is shot in widescreen Cinemascope: a 20th Century-Fox prerequisite for its “A” productions at the time.  
From Jack Clayton’s perceptive direction to the affecting performances of its talented cast, everything about The Innocents: location, décor, and especially its use of sound and the innovative integration of electronic synth to its music score – has been done to capture the feel of James’ novel and remain true to its subtle horror.
Clytie Jessop as Miss Jessel
And while The Innocents is a deliberately paced, restrained film, it’s far from passionless. In fact, in its own buttoned-up Victorian way, it's near-hysterical. When one takes the time to process just what Miss Giddens' suspicions allude to, or what's to be inferred by the strange relationship she shares with Miles...well, it's really rather astonishing. Especially when considering the age of the children and the fact that this was made in 1961.
(Even The Nightcomers -1971, an ostensibly progressive prequel to The Turn of the Screw featuring Marlon Brando as Quint and Stephanie Beacham as Miss Jessel, felt it necessary to take the edge off a bit by making Miles and Flora teenagers.)
The Kiss

The Innocents is a film I came upon rather late in the road, seeing it for the first time only a few years ago after several readers—learning of my newfound appreciation of Deborah Kerr—recommended it as both one of Kerr's finest films and the actress' favorite of all her performances.
I have a vague recollection of seeing part of The Innocents when I was a kid; a memory wedded in my mind with seeing  The Haunting on TV (a film I now see owes quite a lot to Jack Clayton) and concluding in both cases that, to my Creature Features-weaned mind, the movies weren't scary enough to hold my interest because “nothing happens.”
Peter Wyngarde as Peter Quint
Now, to my mature, weary of the Rob Zombie/Eli Roth School of horror-for-the slow-witted eyes, I realize nothing could be further from the truth. Catching The Innocents on TCM, I was absolutely thunderstruck by what an exquisite exercise in terror of the mind it is. I was especially impressed by how true to the nature of Henry James’ novella the film remains, maintaining the particulars of the ghost story and tone of Victorian repression, all the while interposing layer upon layer of menace, deviancy, and psychological dread in ways wholly cinematic and dramatically evocative.

I can’t remember when I’ve seen a more beautifully shot horror film (the edges of the frames are blurred, giving the impression of things hidden and lurking in corners), nor one with a screenplay so richly detailed in character and a sense of time and place. The real trick up The Innocents’ sleeve is its narrative ambiguity. It’s extremely skilled in establishing Bly House as a place of strange goings on, of encroaching decadence and decay, but just as deftly it hints that the principled, impressionable Miss Giddens might be something less than a reliable narrator.
Are the others unable to see, unwilling to see, or is there just simply nothing there to be seen?

The puzzle of the story is provocative and the whole film is shrouded in a disturbing sense of discordant interactions, but what cemented The Innocents as an enduring favorite (and made watching the film a genuinely frightening experience I was more than happy to repeat) is how its ambiguous structure played with my imagination just as deftly as the shadows and barely heard whispers in Bly House played with that of Miss Giddens. 

I’ve recounted before on these pages my youthful antipathy toward the work of Deborah Kerr. A gross discrediting of this immensely talented actress born of my first having become aware of her work through those late career head-scratchers which hardly did her justice (Prudence and the Pill, Casino Royale, Marriage on the Rocks). Bonjour Tristesse is the film that turned me around, followed by the glorious Black Narcissus, and now The Innocents—unequivocally my favorite Deborah Kerr performance. It's in fact one of the most extraordinary screen performances I've had the good fortune to come across. 
Given how often I’ve watched The Innocents merely to see the play of emotions cross Deborah Kerr’s face—some of the most complex appearing in almost imperceptibly brief flashes of brilliance—I too am convinced this film is Kerr’s finest hour. With the entire film hinging upon the arc of Miss Giddens’ character: from empathetic voice of reason to irrational, possibly unstable fantasist; Kerr moors this ghost story in a gripping emotional realism.
With no dialogue specifically addressing the source of her character’s many “issues” (the fervency of her devotion to children, the cause of her troubled dreams, the austerity of her existence, her sexual repression/preoccupation) she makes The Innocents as much a film about the dangers of repressed desire cloaked in moral rectitude as it is about the corruption of innocence.

Deborah Kerr makes the movie for me, but the two child actors portraying Miles and Flora are beyond outstanding. Both Pamela Franklin (the wondrous actress from Our Mothers House and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie making her film debut) and near-veteran Martin Stephens (Village of the Damned) credit their performances with the patience bestowed by Jack Clayton, but I think that’s only partially the case. These kids bring an incredible amount of creepy plausibility to their roles.
Kids in horror movies are meant to ratchet up the jeopardy-factor, but too often the reality is, in the casting, that they tend to be a pretty vacuous addition; vortices of irritation, sucking the energy out of perfectly good horror films. For the radiance of every Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed there are countless half-pint deadweights like the twin blank slates cast in The Other (1972); that annoying brat in Burnt Offerings (1976); the dyspeptic son-of-a-devil in the 2001 remake of The Omen; and worst-offender prize-winner, the noxious child in the TV movie version of The Shining, who had viewers praying for his REDRUM.
Compare the knowing and disturbing performances of Flora and Miles in The Innocents (Stephens managing to be also heartbreakingly touching) with their elongated, vacant-eyed counterparts in The Nightcomers and you really get a true sense of the enormous contribution Franklin Stephens' and Pamela Franklin's canny knowingness makes to the overall chilly effectiveness of The Innocents.
Purity Devoured by Evil

A testament to the richness of The Innocents’ ambitiously ambiguous structure is that its themes of innocence defiled and wholesomeness decayed extend to the enigmatic efficiency of its title.
Who are "the innocents"?
Taken literally, it refers most obviously to Miles & Flora, children whose innocence Miss Giddens fear has been robbed of them due to their exposure to the “indecencies” of Quint and Miss Jessel’s relationship. And, taking this tack, most certainly the sheltered Miss Giddens also qualifies as an innocent; not only due to her novice status as a governess, but born of her naiveté and misguided moral indomitability in the face of an evil she can scarcely comprehend. Even Miss Grose, with her determined refusal to entertain even the dimmest thought of anything untoward, represents innocence preserved through obliviousness.
Purity Decayed
A bug crawls out of the mouth of a garden cherub

I personally gravitate to the above interpretation of the film’s title, but equally persuasive is the theory that The Innocents is meant paradoxically, like Edith Wharton’s ironic titles for her novels The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. In which case The Innocents alludes to the Christian concept of original sin and how all acquired knowledge—carnal or otherwise—is innocence lost. In the context of the film, this posits the notion that none of the characters are really innocent in nature, and none are as unwitting as they seem.

The self-interested uncle feigns no innocence, although his lack of full disclosure to Miss Giddens as to what truly transpired between Quint and Miss Jessel in his country home can be interpreted as the pretense of innocence in order not to lose her as a potential governess.
Miss Giddens’ innocence is called into question when one considers how her reaction to the uncle (obvious infatuation) is mirrored in her response to first meeting Miles. It has been suggested that her fervent devotion to children and lack of interests outside of their welfare, masks a repressed, embattled sexuality. Like many an overzealous “family values” politician, Miss Giddens is a mass of closeted desires and is unwholesomely obsessed with obscenity.
Mrs. Grose, the only adult in a position to be fully aware of what risk to the children Quint and Miss Jessel posed, nevertheless prefers to shun imagination, close her eyes in the dark, and meet everything she doesn’t understand with a dismissive, “Stuff and nonsense.” A willful ignorance, and means of shrouding herself in false, "blameless" innocence.
The question posed by the superficially benign behavior of the children is the one Miss Giddens asks herself: are they truly oblivious to the hauntings and all they have been exposed to, or do they merely pretend? Although we hate to admit it, children have a natural sexual curiosity devoid of an awareness of morality. When we insist on imposing moral imperatives, telling them such thoughts are wicked and wrong, it's not difficult to view such well-meaning "protective" behavior - introducing children to the concept of evil - as a corruption of their natural innocence.
Sharing Secrets

Owing to my having more practical, real-life experience with familial dysfunction than either ghosts or haunted houses, I like horror films which make a case for supernatural disturbances arising from emotional and psychological crisis. When I think of my favorite horror movies (Rosemary’s Baby, Burnt Offerings, The Shining, The Stepford Wives, The Omen, The Exorcist, and The Haunting) they all start with characters whose relationships and/or emotional states are already shown to be under some considerable stress.

Early on in The Innocents it’s hinted that the very qualities characterizing Giddens as a suitable governess—single (and perhaps given to flights of romantic fantasy, “You do look pleased!” remarks Flora, noticing Miss Giddens’ reaction to receiving a letter from the handsome uncle), sensitive, morally devout, a strong love of children—are the aspects of her personality which will later prove to be where she is most vulnerable.
The positive, sensual overstimulation she feels with her arrival at the manor (whose every corner of tranquil beauty also reveals an air of decay) turns feverish and detrimental only in proportion to what she learns about the children’s past and their relationship with Quint and Miss Jessel. As The Innocents reveals itself to be a ghost story, it also exposes its roots in Victorian repression; for one gets the distinct impression that for Miss Giddens, the materialization of the ghosts themselves is a horror, but one secondary to the real “evil” they represent: sex. 
It’s precisely this‒the subtle overlay of human sexual neurosis upon the supernatural‒ that makes The Innocents such a compelling and uniquely creepy viewing experience. A film so intelligent and artful in execution that it can end on a note that leaves the audience with more questions than answers, yet at the same time feel wholly and utterly satisfying. Brilliant movie.

Insights: The Making of "The Innocents" (2006)  Click HERE to watch the 30 min. documentary
Director jack Clayton and Pamela Franklin behind the scenes during the filming of The Innocents

This speculative take on the events preceding The Innocents is vastly inferior and over-literal, but as a curiosity (Marlon Brando's accent!) worth a look. Available on YouTube (for now).

"More than anything I love children. More than anything."
Copyright © Ken Anderson