A review requested by reader WBTN, with thanks for supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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The 1961 British film The Innocents - which is either a horror film about ghosts or a psychological tragedy about female repression in the late Victorian period - stands astride 20th Century film history with one foot planted firmly in arch classicism, the other in the jarring modern styles that were only just coalescing around the world. I'm not even sure if this is a "strategy" per se (would a film released in 1961 even be aware that these modern styles existed?), but if it was purely an accident, it was an enormously productive one. In a great era for horror, with Britain's own Hammer Films in the full swing of its blood-and-sex-soaked Gothics, Psycho challenging the fundamental rules of narrative cinema over in America, and France and Italy both starting to crank out aesthetically striking, if sometimes wholly incoherent horror pictures, The Innocents is still one of the pinnacles of genre filmmaking from its generation; acutely unnerving, magnificently played, and just plain fucking gorgeous, one of the last masterpieces of black-and-white cinematography before it turned into a boutique stylistic choice.

The film is twice adapted: first from Henry James's 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, then from William Archibald's 1950 stage adaptation of the novella. The film's screenplay was predominately the work of Truman Capote, probably someone's idea of the perfect choice to turn James's morbid fantasy into a gripping psychological thriller, but not mine; the more fool me, as it turns out, because Capote's gentle re-working of the material (which consists largely of the sharp, probing, uncomfortably knowing dialogue; he also gave James's nameless protagonist a concrete identity, following Archibald in calling her "Miss Giddens") is absolutely perfect, providing an exemplary foundation for the rest of the filmmaking team to concoct a practically sultry Gothic tribute to frigidity.

The story is that of a young woman hired as a first-time governess to oversee two children, 12-year-old Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), the wards of a blatantly unloving uncle (Michael Redgrave, charismatically repugnant in a one-scene role). And here's where The Innocents does something that absolutely should not work at all, but proves to be one of the smartest tricks the film ever plays: in the role of dewy-eyed Miss Giddens, we get 39-year-old Deborah Kerr, who'd left her "virginal ingรฉnue" days behind her back in the 1940s. It helps that Kerr is magnificent in the role: apparently, she at one point indicated that she thought this was her best work as a screen actor, and regardless if that's true (I wasn't able to find the citation), I certainly haven't seen the Kerr performance to top it in my esteem. No small part of that is because of the tension the actor finds between the role as heavily implied (yet another "innocent" along with the two children, a woman barely out of girlhood and unprepared for the leering world of men) and the role as it necessarily turns into when Miss Giddens is aged up, visibly and emotionally, if not necessarily "actually".ย  It becomes more rattling in its portrayal of psychological disturbance - the difference between a young woman who is doomed to be destroyed by the mores of Victorian England, and a woman closing in on middle age who has already been so destroyed.

As attested to by the rich asshole uncle's thorough indifference in his nephew and niece's wellbeing, or his disinterest in Miss Giddens as anybody besides a warm body willing to take the job, the household she walks into is a hugely distressed one, reeling still from the deaths a year ago of Peter Quint, the rich man's valet and Miss Jessel, the previous governess. We get this and other gossip from housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), but we get even more from the ungodly weight of the atmosphere, pressing down on the film like a coffin lid with six feet of dirt behind it. The Innocents was the second feature by producer, AD, and all-round film set junkie Jack Clayton, whose directorial career was marked by few projects and enormous choosiness as he leapt from genre to genre (his previous film was the frank romantic drama Room at the Top), and he made no better choice in that capacity than bringing along Room cinematographer Freddie Francis, shortly to make his leap into directing (he would, in fact, spend a good deal of time at Hammer).

The result was one of the all-time triumphs of black-and-white cinematography, and the film that's single-handedly responsible for locking the very solid Francis's name among the legendary cinematographers, even if this is decidedly an odd entry in his career. At the insistence of the moneymen at 20th Century Fox, The Innocents was to be shot in CinemaScope, though Clayton and Francis won the battle to shoot it in monochrome. Which was the more important battle by far: The Innocents is a masterpiece of using darkness and light to play out the psychological torment of the main character, going from shattering, iconic images of harsh contrast to screens filled with murky gradations of grey throughout its running time.

It's also a masterpiece of using darkness as a way of smacking the audience around with the gloom befitting a horror film, because as I've somehow managed to avoid mentioning till now, The Innocents is a ghost story. Miss Giddens grows convinced that she actually sees the shades of Quint (a tremendously imposing Peter Wyngarde) and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) floating around the dark, and sometimes to her great consternation, in the middle of broad daylight. And she grows convinced that the dead servants have come back to possess the bodies of the children and in so doing continue to act out their heinous love affair, one that deeply upset all of the other members of the household (the exaggeratedly euphemistic dialogue Capote gave to Jenkins to explain all of this backstory is one of the screenplay's finest touches). Though the film very carefully leaves open the possibility that this is all located squarely inside Miss Giddens's mind, broken by her own ingrained fear of sex and her unseemly obsession with young Miles's peculiarly mature flirtation. And, in fact, I think that this balance, hard for any film that tries to strike it, isn't perfect here; I invariably leave The Innocents at least mildly certain that the only ghosts are the ones Miss Giddens brought with her. And if that makes The Innocents less of a slam-dunk incontestable masterpiece of the ghost story genre than, say, 1963's The Haunting (a pair of films that I've never been able to avoid comparing, bad habit though it may be), it's only barely slightly less.

Because, as I was saying, oh my God, that cinematography. In order to cope with the extra-wide screen, Francis devise an ingenious scheme using tinted glass plates to artificially blur and darken the screen around the edges, in effect using the ethereal blackness of the setting as a framing element in and of itself. I don't know if that sounds like much, but it's everything: the sense that gloom is a kind of outside force that impresses itself upon Miss Giddens is pervasive throughout The Innocents, and very much key to its suffocating effect. Which is not to say that Francis and Clayton spent the whole film working around the aspect ratio, because they also went exactly the other way: staging scenes to place characters on opposite sides of a huge gulf of treacherous haunted space in the middle of the yawning frame.

I don't know that I care if there are actual ghosts here or not: the way the film looks, it feels like ghosts, if not Quint and Miss Jessel, than some other malevolent spirit entity, oozing into the very emulsion and blackening it with wrath. The film looks so good that a fella could be forgiven for not mentioning how amazing it sounds, not even when the sounds precede the image: in possibly the film's most distinctive "it is the early '60s" gesture, the movie opens with black leader, while Isla Cameron sings the original folk ballad "O Willow Waly" in a bone-chilling approximation of an airy child's voice. The studio logo finally appears some 40 seconds later. The song, with lyrics by Paul Dehn and music by Georges Auric, provides the spine for the rest of the score to follow (also by Auric), and thanks to its startling, otherworldy first appearance, it always brings with it a distinctive feeling of spiritual disease and morbidity.

The score is only part of the film's sonic landscape: just as important as anything here is the legitimately groundbreaking use of electronic sound effects, programmed and designed by Daphne Oram. This was among the earliest times that these kinds of noises showed up in horror or cinema more generally, and the effect, especially contrasted with the relative classicism of the settings and Kerr's performance, is deliciously jarring; we've had decades of electronic wooshes standing in for ghosts in the half-century and more since The Innocents was young, and I still can't think of a single example of them working this well to actually sound paranormal.

The result of all of this is a damned fine piece of horror cinema, regardless of whether the locus of that horror is inside or outside of its main character. It would be an out-and-out lie to call it "underrated"ย  -ย  a berth in the Criterion Collection, appearances in various "thousand best movies ever" lists, no, it's not under-rated - but it's decidedly under-seen, or at the very least, under-discussed. This is essential viewing across the line: for horror fans, for fans of prestigious literary adaptations that actually do service to their source material, for exemplary screen acting. The mere fact that it can be a great film in three such different ways is all the testimony needed as to how great the film is, how well it's working in every last detail.