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The Innocents

The Innocents(1961)

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Though not as widely known as The Haunting, Poltergeist or even The Bad Seed and The Omen, this combination haunted house/creepy kid flick is a film that is ripe for rediscovery with it's much anticipated release on DVD.

Based on the story, The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, Deborah Kerr stars as a woman hired to look after two children at a vast estate. Loving children, she jumps right into the job and warms herself up to the two, seemingly angelic, well-spoken and "perfect" children. Things start to turn dark when Kerr notices some odd behavior amongst the two "innocents" and begins to learn of the dark history of the estate, particularly regarding the previous nanny and her relationship with the equally mysterious caretaker.

The film was shot in lush and atmospheric black & white by the legendary Freddie Francis, who would later go on to photograph several of David Lynch's films, most notably The Elephant Man, Dune and The Straight Story. Francis was also a director himself, one whose work is highlighted primarily by scores of interesting British horror titles, such as several anthology horror films like Tales from the Crypt, Torture Garden and Tales That Witness Madness as well as helming Joan Crawford's infamous last film, Trog! (...but please don't hold that against him!)

The Innocents is a virtual tapestry of images, sounds, moods and emotions that grabs the viewer immediately and holds on tight...from the quiet, opening title sequence to the chilling final scenes. The sound in the film is quite remarkable and is certainly the reason why the film remains so extremely creepy- from the rush of pigeon wings, insects, whisperings and creaking floorboards topped off with the tinny strains from a ghostly music box.

Deborah Kerr's performance is absolutely fascinating. Her character of Miss Giddons is a virtual bundle of nerves. Congenial and obviously enamored with the children, Kerr's wide set and expressive eyes are used to maximum advantage here, particularly in scenes where one moment, she is kind, loving and patient?in the next, her haunted eyes register suspicion and shock as if a veil was lifted. A very subtle, effective and truly chilling performance.

The film also contains some of the most truly eerie and bone-chilling images I have ever seen...particularly the vision of a female "ghost" standing quietly amongst a reed-strewn lake and the sequence highlighting one of Kerr's late night, candlelit walks around the huge, empty mansion as well as many others that I don't want to spoil.

The children themselves are perfectly cast, the ultimate combination of sweet and creepy at the same time. Little Martin Stephens, who would go on to become a much more recognizable horror icon in the original Village of the Damned, is the "Ideal Creepy Kid"- Perfectly well spoken, polite, funny and cute...he will send shivers down your spine.

Finally, the reason that the film remains so intriguing and still holds up many years later, is that it works on two separate, yet equal levels. It can be viewed as almost two different stories: 1) a horror, supernatural ghost story or 2) a psychological drama in that we never really find out if Kerr is simply IMAGINING these visions, sounds and apparitions or if she is a hysterical, sexually repressed nutcase. No other character sees or hears the things she does, but they believe her and accept it. The story makes a few references to her background but I believe that the story is supposed to remain ambiguous and open-ended, allowing us, the viewer, to come up with our own ideas of what is and what isn't happening.

Though the film is quite obscure to the average moviegoer...The Innocents' influence can be seen in several subsequent films throughout the years, most notably The Others with Nicole Kidman. Both films share a similarly dark vision and often-ambiguous creepy storyline, with the obvious comparison being the roles of the two "creepy" kids.

James' tale of The Turn of the Screw has also been one that has been filmed many times, including a 1959 television version starring Ingrid Bergman and, most recently, the Spanish-lensed Presence of Mind from 1999 with Lauren Bacall. According to Fangoria.com, there have been some recent grumblings regarding Universal's attempt to revisit and update the story. Hopefully, if it happens, this new version will bring people's attention and interest to the original film that truly does deserve the attention.

For more information about The Innocents, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order The Innocents, go to TCM Shopping.

by Eric Weber