31 Days of Hell: The Innocents is a Benchmark in Psychological Horror Few Films Can Aspire Towards

Image Courtesy of Britannica 

Based on the critically acclaimed horror novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Innocents is a classic of psychological horror, that even 80 years later has the power to send chills through its audience. Directed and produced by Jack Clayton, this adaptation of the famous story is studied heavily by film theorists and audiences alike. The script, originally written by playwright William Archibald and later heavily reworked by Truman Capote, is 99 minutes of terror that will excite anyone brave enough to take on this masterpiece.

Staring Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddons, who is a governess offered a job taking care of two orphaned children in an estate in the countryside by their uncle (Michael Redgrave). The children’s uncle makes it clear that he wants absolutely nothing to do with the children, and asks Giddons never to bother him at all if it can be helped. When she arrives in the countryside, however, she becomes convinced that the house and grounds are haunted, and that the spirits haunting them are putting the children in danger.

This movie expertly crafts the tone of the film. Although definitely scary at times, the entire film is more eerie than anything. Kerr walks a thin line,  never confirming or denying whether or not the spirits are real or a figment of her imagination. This has led many Freudian theorists to assert that the spirits are a figment of her mind, brought on by sexual repression, although you will have to watch the film yourself to determine if this theory is true.

The children, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens) are creepy in a way that only children can be. Early in the film Flora demonstrates knowledge of things she should not have, such as future events, and secrets. The film is always careful to walk a thin line here too, between the supernatural and kids just being strange. The children are often shown whispering among themselves, and dodge important questions that Miss Giddons poises to them. One of the creepier scenes features Miles kissing Miss Giddons goodnight far longer than he should have. Miles often looks at Miss Giddons in a very strange, almost seductive manner throughout the film, perhaps to underscore the Freudian elements sprinkled throughout.

The film uses elaborate cross dissolves and fades to contribute to an almost overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia, as commented on by cinematographer Freddie Francis, who painted the edges of frames shot indoors to amplify this feeling. During dream sequences there are often several shots fading over each other creating a busy, aggressive, claustrophobic feel to these scenes. The soundtrack adds to this effect immensely. Originally done by Georges Auric and later touched up by W. Lambert Williamson, the atmospheric soundtrack lays over many sound cues to create a composite that is at times oppressive.

This expertly crafted film is one of the seminal piece of psychological horror that every psych horror film afterwards owes a debt of gratitude. Although this film received only lukewarm attention when it was released in 1961, contemporary critics  and audiences found much to love about this adaptation, and I hope you will too during this 31 Days of Hell.

--Patrick Bernas