A menacing adaptation of Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton’s 1961 chiller The Innocents is rereleased this week as part of the BFI’s long-running Gothic season. A sinister and deeply unnerving ghost story, Clayton’s horror carefully constructs its foreboding ambiance by coalescing artefacts of subjection, religious iconography and sexual repression to craft a terrifying ghost story. Ostensibly a simple haunted house tale, The Innocents begins conventionally enough, with naïve governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) heading out to the countryside to care for a recently orphaned brother and sister.
The cherubic children, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), seem sweet enough, however their youthful gaiety soon reveals signs of insubordination and unsettlingly behaviour. Exacerbated by a series of unexplainable visions and a ubiquitous sense of growing dread, the children’s troubling conduct compels Giddens to enquire into their troubled upbringing. She thus unearths a ghastly tale concerning two previous employees of the house, a tale full of violence, lies and illicit procreation – leading her to believe the spirits of these damned souls are continuing their ghostly affair through her young charges.
Critics have tried to verify the exact nature of the evil that lurks beneath The Innocents’ supernatural veneer since its release, though many argue that the true brilliance of the film is the unease and confusion its opacity instils upon the viewer. Are the ghosts that haunt Miss Giddens the lingering spirits of a violent and harmful romance, or merely her displaced fear regarding the decline of traditional values? This shrewd blurring of objective reality distorts the film’s peripheral margins, veiling the action in shadows of suffocating fear and ensnaring us within the psychologically torture experienced by Giddens as she attempts to comprehend the terror that defiles the walls of this majestic yet morally rotten mansion.
The Innocents is appreciated best when placed within the context of its release, as well as the sexual liberation movement that preceded its production. The arrival of the contraceptive pill and changing attitudes towards both monogamous relationships and homosexuality lead to a period of heightened anxiety from the more conservative corners of society. Dissecting Gidden’s mental breakdown with a Freudian slant also provides a whole new level of analytical satisfaction. Projecting these apparitions as unconscious psychological drives catalysed by repressed sexual energy transforms Clayton’s film into more than just an unnerving haunted house tale.
A delirious excursion into the deepest, darkest depths of social anxiety and the sexual emancipation of womankind, The Innocents delicately layers its conventional ghost story with a devilishly sinister filling of depravity and conservative disquiet. Clayton’s unrivalled Gothic masterpiece, with its eerie atmosphere and precocious antagonists, continues to creep its way under audience’s skin even to this day. Yet equally as remarkable is the film’s incredibly intelligent handling of the horror genre that has rightly led to it being heralded time and again as one of the finest ghost stories to have graced the silver screen.