"Sometimes, one can't help.... imagining things..."
This is a film, directed by Jack Clayton and from a Henry James book ("Turn of the Screw", which I heard about for years) and co-written by Truman Capote, that posits what happens when someone like the good and caring Governess Miss Giddens is compelled to save the children from what she sees as supernatural entities ("abominations", as she calls them at one point). She starts seeing them not too soon after she arrives to the home where the young Flora (Pamela Franklin) lives and is taken care of usually by Mrs. Grose (Meg Jenkins in a really fine performance, which I'll elaborate on shortly). The young boy Miles is away at school - until, the Governess discovers, he's not, that he's being sent home for some reason that means he's expelled. So now the children are together again - and things keep seeming a little 'off' around them, like, say, there could be someone else in the room....
Point of view is crucial when it comes to a good horror movie, and can make or break one when a filmmaker is aiming to make a great one (i.e. Pan's Labyrinth being from the girl's POV for the most part, of The Shining from that of the father, mother and son in equal measure). In this movie, it's all from Kerr's Miss Giddens, and naturally we side with what she is seeing, these malevolent forces and spirits who are calling out in the night and making things especially haunted in the hallways. And all this while, the Mrs. Grose believes here - up to a point. I really like how Jenkins plays it in these scenes, which make up a large part of the mid-section as Giddens keeps figuring things out, scene by scene. I don't think Grose is someone who wants to see anything bad from any side, and in a way she's secretly more of someone the audience would relate to than even the Governess; she's ignorant, or wants to be or tries to be, of the bad things that have happened and that she's seen over time with these dead people ("they're dead", she tries to say, not to comfort but just as a fact), and yet, that's more common sense, isn't it? Do we completely trust Giddens' POV every step of the way?
I'm not sure, personally, but that's what makes The Innocents go from a good, spooky ghost story into an exceptional one, that sticks emotionally and cuts through to your gut to terrify on a more instinctual level. Could all of this be in her mind? She gets firmer in her conviction that these children are not only haunted by these un-dead entities, but that the spirits may (and are) taking possession of them (i.e. when Flora gets especially spooked by Giddens and freaks out - a lot, this girl has to do a lot of screaming, and does it to the point where it gets upsetting, in a good, dramatic/horrific sense).
But there are little moments I could sense, just maybe, she might have doubts. After all, no one else is seeing these things, and the ambiguity is constantly notched up whenever someone might refer to 'Others' since there's workers on the facility. I have to wonder what the film might be like if it ended on a note where it explained, "Yes, this is what was happening to Giddens and the children and so on'. Moreover, the film's success in its storytelling is not leaving easy answers by the end, either.
A lot of this is strong, convincing and clever writing, on how Kerr sees these kids, which evolves gradually. They're the sweetest little sprats you could hope to come across. At least, at first, one should say. They like to play hide and seek. Flora has a pet turtle that's as cute as she is. And then... there's that song, which is hummed by Flora and Giddens asks where she heard it. "I don't remember," she replies. Is that so? How does Miles know it on the piano? Why does it waft around, sometimes following Kerr like that song follows around Gary Cooper in High Noon? And then there will be those little moments, those little cues (which Jack Clayton directs so expertly it's mind-boggling how simple but solid these choices are) where we see Miles give a look, or have an expression as he's saying something. It's not as noticeable with the girl - perhaps, if she is possessed, it's a different reaction than for the young Miles - but it's there as well.
Another horror movie, a shlockier one lets say, could jump immediately to 'Children = evil, must be stopped", but it's not that clear, by far, for Kerr's character. She wants to save them - she mentions more than once she was raised in a home (religious as it was) that people are good fundamentally and should be treated with the kind of love and respect one would want in return - so she can't immediately snap to harm, or even be strict ala Mary Poppins might get. To the transformation of how Kerr, as well as how she sees kids, is brilliantly laid out and we get to see this step by step by step, until it's difficult to say that the kids are NOT possessed... or are they? What if it's just the influence of the spirits? And can they be saved, whether together or if she has access to Miles one-on-one (which is where it all leads to, by the way)?
The direction and lead performance from Kerr are spectacular. Clayton, with a major assist from legendary cinematographer Freddie Francis (Elephant Man, Cape Fear), uses widescreen to create so much depth in the frame, even when it's just shots on the two women taking in a room (in close-ups, but then one may move around while the other listens, and the focus is crisp and sharp). And when it comes to things that Kerr sees, in the day or the night but especially the night, it's accentuated by the clarity but also how sound is used (that scene where Kerr is walking around from room to room and the sounds of the spirits and the night mix together, it's intensely creepy).
Kerr dominates so well in every scene, sometimes trying her best (and, as per the character, not able) to hide what she wants to say or feel, and then when it comes out we can feel it because of how the actress keeps this maxim: she's a loving person with a perception that can't be easily too shaken. Few actresses can register shock, constantly, from scene to scene, and keep it into the area of trying to keep things controlled. But Kerr does... until things just fall apart; that she's beautiful should be neither here nor there, but the remarks people make, like Miles when he first sees her ("I can't imagine a governess being so pretty") can't be by chance or accident. Another beautiful woman coming in to this home where another beautiful woman - the former governess - once was. Kerr makes this tension throughout the story palpable and makes it into tragic dimensions.
The Innocents is a major ride of a horror movie, but mostly in the psychological sense. It grows deeper as you get more drawn in to the mystery, but also just how Miss Giddens can't shake how she HAS to do something, even if, especially if, the others like Mrs. Grose are ambivalent (or, perhaps, just don't believe here, which is reasonable given the circumstances). Francis is there to create the ominous, awesomely elusive mood, and the actors are there to make it into a dramatic spectacle. I might even say it's a tragic picture - about loss (of others on the young), about losing one's sense of self, about denial, about a lot of things in a way that drives one to wonder about the mind and that always drives the narrative in a way like 'I wanna see what happens next!'
As for the 'Innocence' part... well, just remember as Mr. Waits once said: