This ghost story’s charms are far from ephemeral
At a point in cinema’s long history when multiplex horror films either have the staying power of 20-year-old aspirin (The Ring) or require some extra dimension of hype to dig their way into a discerning moviegoer’s consciousness (The Blair Witch Project), it’s extraordinary, is it not, how the passage of time has utterly failed to diminish the effect of The Innocents (1961). Most horror entries of that period — from the smiling, made-to-be-marketed burlesques of William Castle to the wide-screen, drive-in elegance of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe workouts for AIP — are thought of as quaint, even campy precursors to the onslaught of blood and dread unleashed in that genre beginning in the late 1960s; artifacts of a lonely and forgotten era we might foolishly snicker at today the way audiences then were snickering at some of the benchmark Universal Horrors of the 30s and 40s. But, remarkably, Jack Clayton’s film still manages to have its way with us, ravishing the viewer to a degree many films of its genre never dreamed possible.
That the movie remains so effective after so many years have passed is partially due to its source, Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw” (serialized in Collier’s Weekly, January 27-April 16, 1898). No sensibility wafter of the Victorian epoch wrote ghost stories quite like his. In tales such as “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” and “Sir Edmund Orme,” among others, the pivotal apparitions were more than disembodied spirits prowling the halls of decaying homes and tryst palaces of old, waiting in the dignified shadows for convenient opportunities to leap off the page and say “Boo!” James’ ghosts were the fully roused personifications of unsatiated vengeance, the remnants of aged, unsleeping corruptions — generally of what used to be known as a carnal nature.
A wealthy bachelor (Michael Redgrave) interviews an applicant, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), for the position of governess to the niece and nephew he quite suddenly found himself saddled with some time ago. What he requires of a governess, he explains, is not merely a doting, capable nanny who’ll see to it that the children are well-behaved and decently turned-out, but a full-time maternal stand-in who’s prepared to make them the center of her emotional life. Since the old reptile freely admits he has no interest in the tykes, and since he leads the kind of life in London that small children should not bear witness to, he has packed them off to his country estate at Bly where they’ve been enjoying a nice, placid, very distant life away from Uncle. Miss Giddens, for her part, is terribly eager to take up the task — despite her being a minister’s daughter and having no experience at this sort of thing — precisely for the emotional attachments that will obtain. She wants it so much, in fact, that not even the news of her predecessor’s having died some months before is sufficient to cool her ardor. Miss Giddens rapidly takes to her charges, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), and the whole situation, as it stands, seems outwardly idyllic as the new governess sets about her now-cherished labor.
Until, at odd moments, she senses the presence of others on the estate. First a man, then a woman; neither of whom, from the looks of them, belong there. No one else sees these distant figures, except perhaps Flora and Miles. But whenever Miss Giddens questions them they claim not to have any idea what she’s on about. Vexed, truly vexed, she makes inquiries of the chatterbox housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), and gradually comes to realize that the trespassers are Peter Quint, a recently deceased valet, and a Miss Jessel, who is (or rather was) Miss Giddens’ late predecessor as the children’s governess. And the more she learns about them, the sort of people they were when they were living — wicked, positively scandalous behavior; like common beasts of the earth, those two — the more apprehensive she becomes pondering how much the children may have been influenced by the monstrous, unspeakably venereal example they set when living.
With her inner revulsion mounting, Miss Giddens sees calamity and the allergens of moral putrescence everywhere she turns. She hears furtive whispers, evil laughter. The placid domesticity she signed on for has been demolished from within, broken into an infinite number of pieces by the thought of prurient things she has never dared dream about before. But she forswears that, no matter what she has to do, she’ll render the children safe from all cruelty and indecency. As she tells herself again and again, her hands clasped as in prayer, “I only want to save the children, not destroy them.”
At first blush, Deborah Kerr might have seemed a tad too . . . seasoned for the role of Miss Giddens, who James imagined as a somewhat younger lass. She was forty when she played this part; too old for her Miss Giddens to be a virtuous (if tightly wound) maiden, too young to make her an aged spinster. Either direction would have made for an easier performance and a very bad movie (try to picture Kerr working herself into something like Natalie Wood’s paroxysms of virginal torment in Splendor in the Grass and you’ll get some idea of how closely this film courted disaster). But her apparent unsuitability to the role, oddly enough, works in her favor. Kerr’s acting, regardless of the role, had always evinced a basic sensuality (it’s what kept her from turning into another Greer Garson), and while it may be hard to believe her Miss Giddens has never engaged in our most basic of mating rituals, it’s very easy to believe that she’s been fixating on them morning, noon, and night.
Which of course makes her a perfect Henry James (right) stand-in. “The Turn of the Screw,” after all, was written at a time in that author’s life when, according to some — and James scholars have been spitting at each other like puff adders over this one for decades — the whole sticky, messy, friction-making subject of S-E-X seemed to represent all that was base and unutterable to him; as though the essential politesse of his prose style had finally overtaken his very being. Of course, it’s easy to go overboard with biographical readings and view the thin-skinned virgins he used in place of heroines at this point in his career as unwitting self-projections. Many have. Slog through Leon Edel’s five volumes on the life of James and you can almost envisage the Old Master sitting before his writing table at Lamb House in Rye, shriveling in full Victorian repulsion from all those squalid, quivering, tumescent impulses swimming around just beneath the carefully ironed prose of “A London Life” or “The Tragic Muse.” But “The Turn of the Screw” went further than any James tale ever did in using sex as a kind of ultimate symbol of human corruption, finding in our most natural compulsions a troubling annunciation of the Supernatural.
Whether Henry James truly found human sexuality horrifying in his middle age, or simply too disorderly for someone of his refinement to bear thinking about, he was far too gifted an artist, at bottom, to ever hide behind a palisade of crass sermonizing. Always prissy (his anal-retentive, dichromatic sentence construction had made that plain for decades), he was never moralistic. And though The Innocents is a close adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw,” it’s also the only James adaptation that fully transcends the schematic gentility of its source. With formal precision that only film artists seem to render vividly, Clayton — with damn-near heroic assistance from William Archibald, John Mortimer, and Truman Capote, who coauthored the screenplay — pierces through the refinement and the period trappings and the rhinoceros hide of the tale’s literary reputation. He takes up the Jamesian theme of rot and corruption, plucks out the dramatic core within and carries it further than that author’s always well-mannered prose style would ever permit. The result was a far distant species of cinema from the bloodless, Classics Illustrated reverence later lavished upon James’ The Europeans and The Golden Bowl by the firm of Merchant & Ivory.
The Innocents was Jack Clayton’s second feature film as a director. He was never known for horror films, not after The Innocents and certainly not before it. His directorial eye was not as accustomed to this material as a more practiced horror director’s (a Terrence Fisher, let’s say) might have been, which enabled him to avoid the clichés and the stock effects of the genre expertly; almost as though they had never existed. The result is at times unrelenting, riddled throughout with a tension that frequently emerges from the tale’s most benign corners. As Miss Giddens’ anxiety over the children reaches its apotheosis, and we slowly come to realize just who is in danger from whom, Clayton and his cinematographer, Freddie Francis (just before becoming a directorial staple over at Hammer, a studio that learned a lot from this film), glide their camera fluidly through a seemingly endless series of corridors and staircases, each one swallowed in darkness more deeply, more thoroughly than the last.
What’s most ironic about Clayton’s achievement with The Innocents is that, in the end, it’s a ghost story, and ghost stories have always been the creakiest, most ineffectual subgenre in cinema. With the exception of the “Drop of Water” segment from Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, and (possibly) The Haunting, they’ve been more reliable as comedies (Blithe Spirit, You Never Can Tell) than horror exercises. But The Innocents, like all the best horror movies, transcends its genre without becoming so mainstream as to drive hardcore horror devotees back to the more familiar horrors on gaudy display at a multiplex near you.