The Innocents (1961)

Oh yes I wonder! What he's doing tonight!

Oh yes I wonder! What he's doing tonight!

This movie was so perverted without ever admitting a thing that it made it even more perverted. I’m talking about incest, child molestation, adult molestation by creepy children who may or may not be possessed, the virgin at her first job getting turned out by an older and dangerous male coworker and then they both turn into lecherous ghosts. Oh, and did I mention this action all takes place in or before 1898? Add to that the early 60s censorship and you’ve got one nasty hour and a half long Freudian innuendo on film. Bring me my smelling salts.

Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is a governess hired by a very rich jerk to watch his niece and nephew, children he inherited upon their parents’ deaths. The uncle, for that is the only name we know him by (Michael Redgrave) wants so little to do with the raising of these two kids that he lives in London and they live at one of those English country houses/mansions that the camera just loves.  And by the way, he tells Miss Giddens she is to have sole control over decisions made regarding the children and that he does not want to be informed of or consulted about their care. Even after she tells him this is her first job.

Flora (Pamela Franklin), the little girl, takes to Miss Giddens right away. Knowing at the beginning that the child has lost both her parents and the servants who raised her, anyone who took psych 2 or ever watched a horror movie can see that the kid is being fake as hell and that she is going to turn into a little shimmering spiky ball of emotional problems by the end of the movie. And when Flora finally freaks out at the end of the movie, wow. She is the best underage madwoman in the attic EVAR.

Flora knows before a letter arrives telling Miss Giddens, though, that her brother Miles (Martin Stephens) is returning home from boarding school unexpectedly, and this is important because it is the only evidence of psychic activity actually going on in the story. The rest is left for the viewer to have the endless debate inside himself of crazy governess vs ghosts.

The Innocents is not the type of movie I would usually watch with an eye on reviewing. I have this childish mistrust of all things black and white, for one thing, and I like to see people get hacked up for my dollar. But I got a newer, bigger TV last week which means I have been watching more TV than usual and so I was bored and flipping channels and caught it  on AMC. It freaked me out so badly I had to watch it again the next day so I could pick up on what I may have missed that would help me choose my own ending. Because this is that kind of movie.

People probably get away with watching this movie in college in English class as a substitute for reading Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, the novella on which it is based. Well, actually it is based on a play that was based on the novella, a combination that actually works here. (I don’t like plays either. Sorry.) Because the action is so theatrical, but in that costume picture British way, close-ups of the actors’ facial expressions add to the unsettling feeling I crave and get from a good horror movie.

The only bad thing about this movie is that I hate to do a synopsis because I don’t want to give my interpretation any influence over yours. You almost can’t review this movie other than to say “watchit! now!” I can say that for fans of horror soundtracks that this has one of the most effective I’ve ever heard. There is one theme of music that plays over and over and there are lots of echoey, disembodied voices along with ambient sounds.

For those who like a lot of symbolism there are plenty of birds taking flight during emotional moments and a female ghost that can’t cross a body of water, both of which are just hitting you over the head with the female hysteria theory of literature. It is no surprise then that there are also strong homoerotic hints, especially when asking the question of why Miles was expelled from school. Whatever he did was so bad that the letter they sent home didn’t tell them what it was. It would have caused a scandal.

So would asking the priest to come and bless the arguably haunted house. And hallelujah, we see plenty of very convincing manifestations. The female one is fecking creepy, with hollowed out eyes and a siren-like hold over the world of the living. The male one is still very much is the cock of the walk at the estate. It’s pretty much ghosts 3 people 0 by the end. They’re dead and they’re not happy to be reminded of that fact.

But by far scarier than the kids, the ghosts or the repression is Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens. She comes off as that psycho person in your life who asks you “what’s wrong?” when nothing is wrong, to the point that they MAKE something go wrong with you. But in this case you’d die or go insane to get away from her, instead of just not taking her calls for a bit until she apologozes.

That is what makes this movie. The characters’ ending was inevitable because of the steps taken by Miss Giddens to try to prevent the tragedy, which seems paradoxical to me. Whether you’re infested with ghosts or madness everyone has a breaking point, but here its unsure who is breaking down and why. It’s that ambiguity that makes this movie infinitely watchable. If you’re willing to sacrifice boobs and blood once in awhile for an older movie that really jumps your bones, you have to see The Innocents.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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About Erin

I watch too many horror movies. My favorite movies include Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, A Tale of Two Sisters, Cello, 2000 Maniacs, Messiah of Evil, The Sentinel, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and probably whatever I just watched.
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