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The Innocents

The Innocents
1961 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 100 min. / Street Date 2005 / 14.98
Starring Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins, Michael Redgrave, Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Clytie Jessop
Cinematography Freddie Francis
Art Direction Wilfred Shingleton
Film Editor Jim Clark
Original Music Georges Auric
Written by William Archibald, Truman Capote, John Mortimer from the novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Produced and Directed by Jack Clayton

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

After Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, The Innocents is perhaps the most upscale and artistically celebrated horror film of its time, a class-act psychological thriller with a fine literary pedigree at a time when most horror films were exploitation efforts intended for small kids or undiscriminating audiences at the drive-ins. It is one of the most beautifully photographed movies in B&W CinemaScope, and has a reputation as a literate, intellectual chiller has grown with the years.

Instead of placing the film in its Studio Classics line, Fox has launched it as part of a Fall horror promotion, budget-priced and with a minimum of extras.


"The Uncle" (Michael Redgrave) hires Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) to serve as governess for his orphaned niece and nephew Miles and Flora (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin) on a sprawling country estate he has no plans to ever visit. His only instructions are to take charge and not bother him, under any circumstances. He even forwards a dismisssal letter from Martin's boarding school unopened. Miss Giddens is at first quite pleased but finds herself at a loss to deal with the two precocious and secretive children. Miles has a habit of using untoward compliments to deflect inquiries about his dismissal from school. From the maid Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), Miss Giddens learns that the previous governness Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) had a wild and sordid affair with the gardener Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), both of whom died under mysterious circumstances. Soon Miss Giddens becomes certain that the children are possessed by evil, especially when she sees the ghostly Jessel and Quint peering through windows and seemingly 'guiding' the children's play.

Plenty has been written about The Innocents in film criticism, as it presents the perfect opportunity to compare a known classic novel with a superior film adaptation. Jack Clayton, cameraman Freddie Francis and actress Deborah Kerr create a powerful portrait of a haunting situation that is supposed to be ambiguous - are the ghosts real, or are they merely the figments of Miss Giddens' imagination?

The novel was a carefully modulated work of prose that took great pains to avoid being specific about the question of whether or not the ghost are real. Miss Giddens may be a sick woman producing the phantoms out of her own mind, but in a book the writer has complete control over what we can "know" about the situation. The haunting can indeed be handled in an ambiguous manner.

As beautifully made as the movie is, it reduces the mystery to a study on morbid psychology and self-generated hysteria. Screenwriters William Archibald, John Mortimer and Truman Capote leave no room for ambiguity as their Miss Giddens is a sexually frustrated woman from the get go. Her very first statement in the interview with The Uncle is to affirm that she indeed has an active imagination. She's obviously flattered by The Uncle's trifling compliments and perhaps imagines that this assignment will be the beginning of a great romance between them, as in a woman's novel.

Miss Giddens relates to the spirited Flora well enough but she's completely unequal to the task of dealing with Miles. He evades her questions with deft flattery and misdirection and speaks in abnormally adult tones, seeming to infer things he's not saying almost as if trying to charm Miss Giddens as a conquest. For her part, Miss Giddens backs down like a schoolgirl and caves in to his every ploy. She accepts Miles' veiled domination and lets him get away with his precocious tricks.

The way The Innocents is filmed rules out its interpretation as a ghost story. Miss Gidden's spectral encounters are all highly stylized from her subjective point of view. The screen distorts, adding layers of diffusion whenever she 'sees' Quint or Miss Jessel. Quint is portrayed a wanton brute with a cruel look across his face. Jessel is an emaciated spectral victim. True, Giddens 'sees' Quint before she hears his full story or even knows that he might be there, but all the filmic indications point to a purely psychological interpretation: Miss Giddens is a frustrated spinster who goes quietly hysterical just to think of the children being exposed to wild sex acts. She herself is repressed and sex obsessed. If there's any doubt of this, Giddens' final passionate kiss at the end dispels it: The woman is 'round the bend.

Of course, if one wants to be superstitious one can always believe the ghost angle. But from the viewpoint of reading what actually occurs on the screen, especially the kiss, Miss Giddens is an hysterial basket case, soon to descend into out-and-out madness.

That debate doesn't negate the power of The Innocents, which has both a spooky intensity and a knack for nasty aesthetic contrasts between things beautiful and profane. Miss Giddens interprets unpleasant aspects of nature as obscene, like the image of a black beetle crawling out of the mouth of a statue. This symbol of sex as vile and disgusting is balanced by several double lap dissolves done in the style of Val Lewton's Bedlam. Lewton or Mark Robson came up with the idea of introducing a third dissolve element between scenes to create a thematic motif. In Bedlam the images are Hogarth paintings. The outgoing scene dissolves to the painting and then immediately continues to dissolve to the incoming scene. The painting is on the screen by itself for only a frame or two. One highly effective transition of this kind in The Innocents uses a large white rose. Suspended within the double dissolve for at least eight or nine seconds, it becomes a diversion of its own, a little poem.

To say that Deborah Kerr interprets Miss Giddens as nervous and over-imaginative isn't to slight her acting, which is truly wonderful. Ms. Kerr is in almost every scene and builds on the character's nervous state in carefully measured increments.

The children are clearly the most disturbing thing in the show, and The Innocents takes a perverse point of view when it encourages us to imagine them sharing obscene little secrets as Miss Giddens imagines they do. The real ambiguity in the film is with the kids -- are their snickering conspiracies just child's play or evidence of perversity? Young Pamela Franklin (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) is very good at projecting this mystery of childhood, and Martin Stephens (Village of the Damned) is either the most powerful child actor ever, or was very patiently provoked to give an alarmingly precise range of emotions -- guilt, sneering contempt, anger, defiance, panic -- in a concentrated space of time.

If the children are emotionally confused, it's probably because their parents are dead and their Uncle has purposely absented himself from their lives, like Jehovah turning his back on Adam and Eve. Miles' evasions and little crimes would seem an obvious result of this situation, which Giddens prefers to ignore.

Cinematographer Freddie Francis outdoes himself. The great gray mansion is perfectly lit and the lenses invite us to find clues in the corners of rooms and hiding in the hedges and marsh grass. Many shots hold Miss Giddens in a closeup on one side of the frame while an important event happens (or she imagines it happens) on the other side. The only hindrance is that the lenses used appear to be older models that give faces the CinemaScope 'mumps' in close-ups. These earlier lenses with distorted fields show up frequently in Fox films made in Europe, leading Savant to think that they were exported (dumped) when the studios received newer designs from Bausch & Lomb.

The Innocents exploits its soundtrack better than any horror film to that date, using silences and an eerie song to set a mood. The main lamenting tune, sung by a solitary voice, precedes the Fox logo and plays like a haunting overture in a minor key. By the time we're hearing Miss Giddens' whimpering cries behind the titles, we're completely won over.

Jack Clayton's movie reportedly didn't do that well in the theaters and didn't start any big trends in upscale screen horror, but its reputation has grown with the years. Nicole Kidman's The Others is almost a remake of The Innocents, at least in tone, with Kidman channeling Grace Kelly instead of Ms. Kerr.

Fox's DVD of The Innocents is a fine enhanced transfer of a good but not perfect film element. Minor density fluctuation occurs in several places, mainly the titles. Earlier descriptions of the film style described the 'apparition' scenes as being optically processed to put defocused vignetting around the edges of the image. When these effects weren't present, some reviewers presumed that the laserdisc from the 90s was crop-framed. The vignettes still aren't there, at least not in any blatant form, and the picture doesn't look too tightly composed or blown up.

It's a shame that a commentary wasn't included to further discuss The Innocents and explain its path from celebrated literary classic to high-toned filmic horror. A trailer is included, complete with a tag line shouted several times by a narrator in an echo chamber, that disappointingly tries to ballyhoo the movie as a screen shocker like any other. The DVD box likewise uses a yawningly generic sales pitch: "A Haunting Tale of Terror!"

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Innocents rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 11, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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