Some of my constituents, particularly my very vocal hot-girl readership (there are a few), rightly point out that I keep going back to “old” movies. To some of them, anything before the 1990s is considered “old.” So I hate to disappoint, because 1961 is positively ancient, but The Innocents is too goddamn creepy for me to skip over without recommending. Particularly now, in an era where people are somehow satisfied by Paranormal Activity movies where literally nothing happens, I have to make a case for a real-deal scary movie like this one. Call it “old” if you want, but at least in The Innocents, you actually see the ghosts.
The Innocents has a remarkable and surprising literary pedigree — based on the novella The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James, and co-written by Truman Capote — but it’s as eerie as a ghost story gets. I was asleep during most of English class, so I was surprised to find out that The Turn Of The Screw was a ghost story, and apparently a fairly sophisticated one. I did’t know that they were writing spooky ghost stories with psychosexual subtext and supernatural over-text as far back as the Henry James era, but here’s the evidentiary pudding.
Deborah Kerr (From Here To Eternity, The King And I) plays a repressed woman who is hired as a governess at a remote mansion in the country, where she’s meant to watch over these two spooky little kids, who have been corrupted by the haunted nature of the estate. The ghosts aren’t just sightings — which are the scary, throat-catching highlights of the film — but they also seem to be halfway-possessions, which leads up to a still-shocking-even-by-today’s-standards kiss between the governess and the pre-adolescent boy. It’s one of the creepiest kisses in cinematic history.
The Innocents is clearly influential, from the most direct, such as in the Nicole Kidman film The Others, to the more stylistic, such as in much of Guillermo Del Toro’s work and as in plenty of Asian horror cinema. The stark, sweeping, remarkably crystalline black & white cinematography by Freddie Francis is absolutely a landmark. The sound design is ingeniously eerie, as is the staging, courtesy of director Jack Clayton. Fifty years later, this movie still retains its ability to haunt.
Martin Scorsese lists The Innocents as one of the scariest movies ever made. Are you prepared to argue with Martin Scorsese about movies? Or would you rather check out a great movie and be creeped out masterfully?