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The Innocents begin life as Henry James' story The Turn Of The Screw. It was then adapted into a stage production by William Archibald and after that adapted for the silver screen by none other than Truman Capote. The film, directed by Jack Clayton, follows a woman named Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) hired by a wealthy man (Michael Redgrave) to work as a governess to his orphaned niece Flora (Pamela Franklin) and nephew Miles (Martin Stephens). As he remains busy in London with his business affairs he insists he not be bothered by any of this. She accepts the position and heads off to Bly, their massive old estate, to begin her new career.
Things start off well enough for her. She's instantly smitten with charming young Flora, describing her as angelic, and she seems to get along with Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), the old housekeeper, just fine. When she gets a letter from Miles' boarding school noting that he's been expelled and that he's being sent home, things quickly start to take a strange and mysterious turn after his arrival. The young boy is unusually flirtatious with the admittedly very pretty Ms. Giddens but there's more to it than that. There's something… off about the way they interact with each other and with those around them. Eventually Giddens gets it out of Grose that the estate has a dark past. The last governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), and uncle's former valet Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), were having a torrid and twisted affair and while both of those former employees are now dead, Giddens feels they may not have actually left Bly at all…
Ripe with some very obvious Freudian themes and symbolism, The Innocents remains at its core a gothic ghost story in the grand English tradition (though it was bank rolled by Fox it was shot in England with an English cast and crew) complete with all the trappings: a creaky but stately old mansion, large and looming shadows, eerie kids and yes, of course, an exploration of the home at night lit only by a candle. The film sets itself apart in interesting ways, however, not just in the repressed sexuality implied in Giddens' character and possibly awakened by Miles' attention to her (the scene in which they kiss famously earned the film an X rating in its original UK theatrical run) but also in the details that the camerawork tends to showcase. Giddens is quite literally surrounded by death while she herself is quite full of life and there is all manner of visual contrast presented here for those who like to take in such things.
Although the movie does not go at the fastest pace ever seen, it builds purposely. What at first seems a little slow later solidifies as a deliberate attempt on the part of the filmmakers to create a fantastic atmosphere, one that becomes increasingly bleak as the story unfolds. Clayton uses sound very well here, even early in the film when Giddens puts Flora to bed and hears something outside that disturbs her. Little ‘bits' like this are used throughout the movie to keep both Giddens and the audience on edge so that by the time things do start to manifest on screen in the visual sense, our imaginations have already taken off and convinced us that, yes, this is scary stuff regardless of how subtle it is in the first half of the film.
Performances are very good across the board here. Redgrave is only in the opening scene but he cuts an imposing frame and plays his part well. Jenkins is great and completely sympathetic as the kindly housekeeper while both Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens excel as the strange children so much of the darkness in the film seems to revolve around. Not surprisingly, top billed Deborah Kerr is the real star of the show here. She's not only beautiful but a very talented actress and this role offers her the chance to really show a lot of range. Kerr is never less than completely convincing, whether she's showing kindness or administering discipline or whether she's showing affection or reacting out of fear.
Equally important is Freddie Francis' work as cinematographer on the film (a few years before he'd go on to make some legitimate horror classics for Hammer and Amicus as a director himself). When Clayton wanted to shoot in the widely used Academy ratio and Fox wanted the film made in Cinemascope, Francis employed deep focus techniques to draw the viewers' eyes to the middle of the screen. He also used filters in some scenes to make the edges of the frame very dark, which allowed Clayton to direct almost as if he was getting his way on the aspect ratio debate. The fact that so much of the movie takes place in shadowy interiors helps in this regard as well, yet when we go outside the camera opens up and takes full advantage of all that the widescreen format offers. Regardless of the tricks of the trade employed here, the film is a visual triumph and a remarkably effective ghost story that retains its ability to engross us and, yes, even to get us a little bit spooked.
Criterion brings The Innocents to Blu-ray framed in its 2.35.1 widescreen aspect ratio in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and the transfer on this disc is excellent. Contrast looks very good, it never blooms, while black levels stay quite deep which results in some incredibly atmospheric use of shadow once the film ramps up its tension. Detail remains strong even in the darker scenes where shadows seem to be encroaching from every corner of the frame, the best example being Giddens' candlelight stroll through the house in the last half of the film. The image is also remarkably clean, showing no serious issues with print damage at all, though some subtle brain is apparent to help keep things film-like. There are no issues with any noise reduction or edge enhancement to note and the image is clean, crisp and stable from start to finish.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language LPCM Mono track. Optional closed captioning is provided in English only (you can't select it from the menu screen but it's easily enabled through your remote). This is a nice clean sounding track. Dialogue stays clear and easily discernible throughout and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. The score sounds nice and some of the sound effects used have nice presence to them, such as the shattering of the window in the big finish. Levels are properly balanced and it's hard to imagine things sounding a whole lot better than they do on this disc.
The feature is available to watch with a twenty-four minute introduction provided by film scholar and historian Christopher Frayling who speaks about the importance of the locations and design work featured in the film and who also explores some of the movie's underlying themes. Frayling also provides a very in-depth audio commentary for the feature that goes into more detail about the history of the picture. Additionally he offers up a lot of information about the cast and crew involved in the film, makes some astute observations about the importance of Freddie Francis' cinematography, discusses the locations, the editing, the pacing, the score and quite a bit more. It's thorough, very detailed and packed with information.
Criterion have also included an eighteen minute interview with cinematographer John Bailey who talks about Francis' cinematography and specifically about how he employed certain tricks to create a claustrophobic atmosphere in a few key scenes. There's also quite a bit of discussion about the way that the lighting in the film is employed and how Francis set up certain shots to take advantage of this. The late Francis himself pops up in the fourteen minute long Between Horror, Fear, And Beauty (shot in 2006) alongside editor Jim Clark, and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis. Here the trio discusses their contributions to the picture, Jack Clayton's directing style, working with the cast and crew and more.
Outside of that we get a trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection. Inside the clear Blu-ray case alongside the disc and cover art is an insert booklet containing credits and technical information about the disc as well as an essay on the film from Maitland McDonagh that offers up some history, insight and critical analysis.
The Innocents might take just a little long to get going but once it does, it's a film that does everything right. It's immensely atmospheric and it features not only some excellent performances (including those from the child actors employed in the cast) but some amazing cinematography and a few really solid scares. It's a smart piece of gothic horror that stands the test of time very well and Criterion's Blu-ray release offers it up in fantastic condition and with some excellent supplements as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.