Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Final Girl Film Club - The Innocents (1961)

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

When Capote turned the screw.

The Innocents, adapted by William Archibald and pop culture icon/author Truman Capote from Archibald's stage play, which itself was based on the 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, is a slow burn of a chiller that keeps you guessing as to just what sort of a horror movie it really is throughout its running time.

The lead character is a woman named Miss Giddens, and the first time we see her she's in a questionable emotional/mental state, working up a sweaty fervor as she prays and goes on about how "more than anything I love children", wanting to save them and not destroy them... Then we see her interviewing for a job as a governess for two young orphaned children who have been put in the custody of their wealthy bachelor uncle, who is admittedly too selfish to give them as much attention and care as they require. The first question we hear the uncle ask Miss Giddens is, "Do you have an imagination?"

Miss Giddens is hired for the job and moves to the uncle's country estate, where the children live. At first, Giddens only has to take care of the girl, Flora, as Flora's brother Miles is off at boarding school, but the precocious boy soon arrives at the estate after he's expelled from school for being a "corrupting" influence on his fellow students.

As Giddens' time with the children goes on, life at the estate starts taking a very strange turn. Something the housekeeper says makes Giddens suspect that there may be someone else around the house, a man with "the devil's own eyes". There's something odd about the children, like they're keeping dark secrets, they don't seem trustworthy. Miss Giddens keeps seeing a couple strangers lurking around... And then she starts learning about the history of the estate, of servants who used to work there. The deviant valet and his abusive relationship with the previous governess. The fact that the valet died in an apparent accident and was found with Miles by his side, that the heartbroken governess went on to commit suicide on the grounds. As Giddens begins to believe that the restless spirits of the valet and the governess are still roaming around the estate and may be a threat to the living, the children appear to be aware of and entertained by their presence.

Several different possible explanations for what was going on went through my mind while I was watching the movie. Straightforward ghost story? Is Miss Giddens going crazy? Is she just imagining all this? Did Miles and/or Flora murder the former servants, and might they cause the death of Miss Giddens? Even after the film ends, different viewers have different theories on what the truth was.

The Innocents takes a very subtle and highbrow approach to its horror, going for establishing an oppressively creepy tone and atmosphere over big shocks and jump scares.

The most unsettling scene for me in the horror aspect found Miss Giddens out in the garden, where she hears someone singing offscreen. She finds that there's no one around to be singing, just a statue with an insect crawling out of its mouth. Then, the sound completely drops out, as Giddens can no longer hear anything herself. No singing, no natural sound of the countryside. Pure silence. She regains her sense of hearing moments later (after spotting a mysterious figure watching her), but this bit got to me because I could imagine the panic attack that I would have if such a thing happened to me. As I've mentioned in write-ups like the ones on Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and Shivers/They Came from Within, I'm much more bothered by the notion of disease and things going wrong with the body than I am by ghosts and goblins, especially since it's something that we all inevitably have to deal with.

Giddens eventually comes to suspect that Miles and Flora might even be possessed by the valet and the governess, which would certainly explain some of Miles' behavior. That idea plays into the most memorably disturbing moment of the film, in which Miles tells Miss Giddens to kiss him goodnight, then the eleven-year-old actor plants a kiss directly on the lips of the thirty-nine year old actress that lingers while uncomfortable seconds tick by. Miss Giddens is left shuddering and everyone watching the movie is lefting asking, "What the hell?"

The performances delivered by the cast are great all around - Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as Miles and Flora, Megs Jenkins as the housekeeper. Nine years later, Franklin would star in the Film Club entry And Soon the Darkness. Kerr earned six Oscar nominations over the course of her career, eventually receiving an honorary award in 1994. While she didn't get a nomination for The Innocents, she considered it one of her best performances.

Filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Guillermo del Toro have both named The Innocents as one of their favorite horror movies. I wouldn't rank it as such myself, but would agree that it's well worth checking out. The film was directed by Jack Clayton, who would go on to make the awesome family-friendly horror Something Wicked This Way Comes. Clayton wanted to differentiate the style of The Innocents as much as possible from the Hammer horror films of the time, and what he ended up with most notably includes some fantastic, gorgeous black and white cinematography by Freddie Francis, which required so many hot, bright lights to achieve that people would jokingly ask the cinematographer if he was trying to burn down the studio. Francis would go on to direct some popular horror films himself for Hammer and its British horror contemporary Amicus.

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