No 153 - The Innocents
Director - Jack Clayton
Is there anything more scary than weird children? There are so many films that focus on children being possessed, or acting unusually or developing cruel and manipulative powers. The mix of evil with innocence is a terrifying but intoxicating and you can understand why it is such a popular subject. It is also a timeless subject, for whilst the acting may have dated in this film, the chills certainly haven't.
This film follows Miss Giddens, the new nanny for two children (Miles and Flora) who appear to be going through various stages of weirdness and may or may not be possessed. Flora seems the more innocent of the two, her unusual behaviour mostly being running away to dance in unusual places. Miles, however, is an odd little bundle. He seems adult before his time. He speaks to Miss Giddens in an odd patronising manner, full of 'darlings' or 'did I startle you my dear', which, whilst it fits the tone of the Victorian era, does not fit the tone of a 10 year old boy. I haven't even begun to talk about the flirting and innuendo and, at one point, sexual advances he brings us with Miss Giddens. He has been raised by his terrific cad of an uncle (the superb, and hilarious, cameo from Michael Redgrave - just get past the credits to see how excellent he is, I aspire to him) but even so... a child of 11 or 12 wouldn't act that way. Specially not in those days. It just wasn't Victorian.
But look at Miles, he was also one of the children from the Village of the damned... imagine being typecast at such a young age (though he does do posh and creepy so very very well).
Miss Giddens becomes obsessed with the unusual behaviour she sees from the children, but also from figures which appear around the building. Figures she discovers are Miss Jessel, the former nanny who committed suicide and Peter Quint, the stable boy and Miss Jessel's lover, who slipped in the ice and died.
For, this is a good old fashioned ghost story and a fabulous one at that. With a script co-written by the Mighty Truman Capote, it smacks of quality and class. Whilst some of the acting and the incredibly plummy accents may feel dated, the film's impact hasn't aged as it doesn't use special effects. The ghosts don't fade, or walk through walls. One minute they're there and the next minute they're not.
As things get progressively worse, the film becomes genuinely chilling. I draw you the scene in which Nurse Gidden searches the corridor for the source of a mysterious voice. This scene is scary. Most horror films don't retain their chills. I find old horror films to be a bit hokey, mainly down to the make up and special effects which have dated. But this... this is unnerving.
You can see how this film has influenced many modern horrors, The Others is almost an all out homage to it (with fabulous subversion) and whilst visually he is very different, Del Toro uses the same sense of weirdness and unease in the ghost films he directs and produces.
The only negative thing I have about it is that the film sets up an excellent 'what if' which is never really exploited. Everyone talks as if, perhaps.. there aren't ghosts. What if Miss Giddens is imagining it all - what if it is SHE who is a danger to the children, rather than the other way round.
Whilst this is implied at times, the evidence in the film is too overwhelming... She starts hearing and seeing ghostly deeds before knowing of the ghosts.
Despite not reading it (though I will now hunt it out) I have heard that the book, The Turn of The Screw, on which this film is based, manages to keep it a lot more ambiguous. But that is something far more easily done on the printed page. I think if the film ended without a clear answer of whether ghosts were involved or not... we'd be dealing with a far darker and far more interesting film.
Despite that it is still worth watching and is a marvellous film. It is enchanting, even though every scene with Miles will make you feel uncomfortable. The boy is a wonderful tightened spring of barely concealed malice and inappropriate sexuality.
PS - I can't believe I essentially finished this blog without talking about the clothes. I love the Victorian era. Love love love. Go back up there and watch the video with the Uncle again. Isn't his outfit swell! I wish I could dress like that all day every day.