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Movie Reviews

The Innocents  

Now here is a horror film, the old-fashioned way. The Innocents, made in 1961, is based on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and, like the book, it brilliantly depicts the terror brought upon a governess (played here by Deborah Kerr) by her two seemingly innocent, mannerly charges. We are shown what seem to be peculiar, ghostly apparitions, but which might be a symbolic, supernatural representation of something only too horrifyingly real, and inseparable from the two children and their disturbing past.

The movie begins with the children`s uncle interviewing Kerr - the uncle bluntly portraying himself as a disinterested party in this situation. He feels burdened with the care of the kids after their parent`s death, and his demeanour and words suggest clearly he`d like nothing better to do than to toss the kids over to a seemingly nice person so he could travel around the world doing God knows what. He suggests his attitude is heartless, but Kerr tries to convince him (and herself, perhaps) this is not.

Another component in the interview is the attribute of imagination, and whether Kerr possesses it. The uncle hopes, as most of his type might, that Kerr possesses enough of it to successfully distract and entertain the children from the hardships of before. This subject seems incidental, but imagination might be exactly what creates the eventual psychological downfall of the governess and the children, as noone seems to be entirely sure of what is happening, or why. Mystery can only breed imagination, and that imagination can concoct some serious ideas.

In a nutshell, the issues which bring about the horror are this: the previous governess had committed suicide. As well, the dastardly stable keeper, who was killed in an accident at the home, was in a relationship with her. The two continued this relationship even though it was quite clear the stable keeper was abusive and manipulative. It is also known that these two people were primary influences on the children, and it might be concluded that the reason the children act the way they do is due to their admiration of the adults.

And then what happens is strange: Kerr`s character starts seeing people she doesn`t recognize. When she tells the maid of all these strange apparitions, the horror comes out. These sightings are of the dead, the ghosts of the two dead lovers. Kerr`s deepening investigation soon leads her to believe the children have full knowledge of the ghosts, but are attempting to fool the grown-ups around them. Numerous scenes will frustrate you, as you will not be sure whether Kerr is imagining all of this, and merely assaulting these kids' poor minds, or whether they really are hiding something.

No matter what the truth is, the grim, surreal mood is never broken at all, not even during the Fox Fanfare. Instead, we get this bizarre and creepy tune, sung by Flora, playing over a blank screen for two or three minutes, with the Fox logo silently, eventually, appearing in the background. The direction is mysterious and atmospheric, and the black and white is shadowy, stern, and otherworldly, as it should be. This is one of the few films where the mood stays consistent throughout, never overboard or too mannered.

Now...those kids.....they are so damned annoying! They sound like kids trying way too hard to impress their elders. Flora is always cheerful and overly imaginative. And the (for me) insufferable Miles embraces every stereotypical British pomposity in his seemingly tiny frame. This, I`m afraid, is not a fault of the film, but an aspect taken right from James, who apparently didn`t have the vision into actual children`s behaviour. But while words on a page are one thing, the actual presentation, where I must actually hear these people talk, makes the children seem less likely. I will be upfront and say this is a flaw, yet it doesn`t ruin the story itself, which is brilliantly constructed.

I truly got a better grasp of this story the second time around, after having read the book a couple of years ago. I believe I somewhat understand the symbolic undercurrents in the appearances of the ghosts. The symbolism seems, to me, to represent the quite natural and common phenomenon of the negative effect of abusive elders upon the next generation. The ghosts, of course, represent the "ghosts", the unspoken secrets of the past. It is telling that the maid frequently bids Kerr to stop digging up "what`s over and done with." The children conspire with the ghosts, because they don't want to be released from the behaviour they've been taught, behaviour which clearly has been negative. And the final shot is a chilling conclusion to what a less thoughtful viewer might have expected, or wanted. Yet this ending is necessary, and gives us the natural aftermath of Kerr`s attempts to drive the ghosts from the children`s presence.

The Innocents is filled with many attributes, works on many different level, and should please those looking for a really good "classic" to view.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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