The Innocents (1961)

I think that we all instinctively worry about children. Even those, like me, who have no instinct to procreate and claim to ‘hate children’ have an innate instinct to protect children. When I hear a baby crying or a child screaming it grates on my nerves and I absolutely want somebody to fix it. It is that instinct that draws people in to protect or rescue children in danger. The only time that I have come close to becoming a caregiver was as a counselor at a summer camp but I never really had any dominion or responsibility for any of the kids. Still, I did teach some classes and I learned how determined young people are to be crazy and worrying. By design, children do not really have the wisdom that most of the rest of us accumulate that help us survive. Poor impulse control and curiosity can often lead to dangerous situations but the kids often do not realize the danger at first. For example, in the original film version of Frankenstein (1931), a little girl meets the monster and is unafraid and ends up drowning because of it. We should all approach life with an open mind but we should also be wary of potential danger at the same time. Children often have not realized that yet and it makes them harder to protect.

Ghosts can be effectively used in horror but it is a fine line to walk. To me, ghosts are creepiest when they are not seen or barely seen. Ghost stories can be very psychological for me because they deal with the barrier between life and death. That barrier is a hard and fast rule in our real world and there have been no reliable accounts of anybody crossing it and coming back. Once you are dead then you are dead and your story is done. In the fictional world of horror stories, people come back all the time. In fact, I watched two Stephen King adaptations already earlier this month that are literally about that. The world of the living and the world of the dead have different perspectives by nature. The world of the dead lives in the past because they have no real future. In our world, we understand that the past must remain in the past at least when it comes to bad things. We learn from the past but we understand that we should not literally bring it back or we will not be progressing and growing. The idea that the past can come back unbidden and affect our present and change our future is a scary concept even without throwing the supernatural into the mix.

This is an older movie and while some older movies do not age well, I have found that many horror movies benefit from being older. Black and white movies are really good at showing off the stark contrast between light and shadow. The cinematographer definitely played a lot with light and shadow. I also noticed how well they used space which is something I do not see as often. By space, I mean that the director places a great deal of empty space between people and things to unsettle the viewer. Older movies such as this one also have fewer frills than modern movies. There is nothing wrong with modern frills but it is refreshing to watch something without fancy special effects. It reminds me of my theater days. The soundtrack is simple but creepy in its simplicity. The music, in particular, has a tension to it and even the happy music feels a little dark. In fact, some of the music was sampled and used in The Ring (2002) because of its inherent creepiness. Like many good horror movies, it gains strength from its use of silence.

The acting is top notch in the movie. The movie is about a governess who is sent to the English countryside to look after two children. Unfortunately, the country estate is haunted by a past that it cannot shake. The strength of the movie comes from the star, Deborah Kerr, who shows such a dynamic range in her acting and it is hard not to like her. Of course, there are two children (Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens). Kids can be a goldmine when it comes to horror and these kids are definitely great at horror without even trying. (Thankfully, the director shielded the kids from the intense nature of the movie’s plot). The kids are so good at being offputting that it is hard to imagine them doing it unintentionally. Their interactions with Kerr are the meat and potatoes of the movie and all the movie really needs to be scary. However, Kerr’s moments alone are also tense as heck. Finally, there is an emotional anchor to the movie in the housekeeper played by Megs Jenkins. She is a kindly old woman who provides a lot of the exposition.

Overall, I really loved this movie. To be fair, this movie is an adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James which is an old but brilliant ghost story. I actually did light and sound design for a stage production of the story years ago when I lived in New Jersey. The movie captures that theatrical kind of horror which involves a lot of the theater of the mind. It makes for a very psychological horror movie where you wonder how much of it is real. When the light comes again, we begin to doubt our thoughts in the darkness.

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