The Bottom Line
Henry James' Turn of the Screw gets an adapted film treatment, with tortured governess Deborah Kerr spying ghosts in a creepy Victorian-era England mansion. But are they even real at all?
The Rest of the Story
Many times you'll hear The Turn of the Screw referred to as "the scariest horror story of all time." I think this does an injustice to truly frightening terror as The Pit and the Pendulum and The Alchemist. Rather, I find it suffice to say that the story is the best horror story of all-time. Combining so many themes and universal truths into an otherwise typical (but scary) haunting, James mastered the art of memetics and literary criticism years before those terms were in vogue. He was the master of seeing his stories from every angle, and writing accordingly.
The Turn of the Screw has been adapted many times, both directly (in a 1999 BBC production) and indirectly (2001's The Others). Yet this movie is the definitive version, because it so honestly and accurately captures all of James' motifs and characters.
Miss Giddens is hired as a governess for Miles and Flora, two wealthy orphans who are under their uncle's care. Together, the group and the few staffers there are live in a sprawling mansion in a nondescript foggy gloam that populate Southern England.
It's not long before Giddens spots a phantom in the house, and research leads her to believe that it is that of the former governess, Miss Jessel. Later she sees a man, who looks like Peter Quint, the governess' lover. When she tries to tell the others, they never seem to see them. And when she looks back herself in disbelief - the ghosts aren't there. Is she imagining things?
Soon, Giddens becomes increasingly curious and determined to find the ghosts. The children are also acting weirdly: are they under the influence of the ghosts? As Giddens continues searching for the truth, the ghosts become more and more active - that is, if there is even a ghost at all ...
Ranked by some as the scariest movie of all-time, The Innocents is certainly one of the most atmospheric and subtle fright flicks ever made. While it falls short of the true thrills and chills, it is the ordinary and decidedly ungrandiose manner in which the ghosts are revealed and Deborah Kerr and the children's interaction that makes it so spooky.
Simply put, this is Deborah Kerr's best performance, her acclaimed roles in An Affair to Remember and The King and I notwithstanding. Critics will occasionally resort to calling the act "melodramatic", but in fact it is her internalized horror that makes the film so disturbing. When she first spots the ghost, she tells everyone, assuming that they'll see them, too. When this proves not to be the case, she becomes reluctant to share her revelations. Watching her battle with her inner self (Am I crazy?) provides as much drama as the actual scenes with the ghosts themselves.
Not to say that the ghost scenes aren't especially chilling. Here, the ghosts make typically abrupt and surprise entries - but it is their actions afterward that make them so compelling. Or rather, their lack thereof. Entire minutes go by with the ghosts onscreen, standing silently or moving indiscriminately, while Deborah Kerr stares in horror and the other actors act oblivious. This is forty years before The Sixth Sense, but these ghosts truly look like the dead returned to earth.
The acting by the children is outstanding, but Martin Stephens as Miles steals the show. Anyone who has read the book and understands the real heart of James' story understands the sexual undertones of the dynamic between brother, sister, and governess. Stephens plays this role to perfection, offering a dichotomy of power being slowly realized by a wealthy youth and the need for a mother (and the Oedipal intricacies that comes with that need.)
Cinematographer Freddie Francis (Oscar-winner for 1960's Sons and Lovers) and director Clayton worked together to create a number of tense long shots and shadow-filled sets that hinted at the stark and lifeless manse where the film takes place. What a glorious, gloomy set! Only The Haunting exceeds it in terms of sheer atmosphere. The writing is crisp (it's easy to adapt James, with his cinematic descriptions and grasp of subtlety) and the music is full of chilling stingers. In short, this film is perfect.
My rating: 10 out of 10. Modern day horror fans need to get back to the basics; this film will creep you out without Dead Alive's gallons of blood. Go watch it tonight with the lights out!
Deborah Kerr .... Miss Giddens
Peter Wyngarde .... Peter Quint
Megs Jenkins .... Mrs. Grose
Michael Redgrave .... The Uncle
Martin Stephens .... Miles
Pamela Franklin .... Flora
Clytie Jessop .... Miss Jessel
Isla Cameron .... Anna