Jack Clayton's 1961 film The Innocents has a fair claim to be the most terrifying British horror film ever made. Somehow, Clayton's black-and-white adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, Henry James's 1898 novella about two children possessed by evil, retains its power even today, in an era in which horror movies have grown ever more extreme. Clayton avoids shock tactics altogether, but the glimpse of a man's face at the window or the fleeting sight of a woman across the water are as unsettling as anything in more conventional bloodcurdlers.
What makes the film doubly chilling is its ambivalence. Are we watching a real ghost story? Is this just the projection of the imagination of the repressed governess Miss Giddens (beautifully played by Deborah Kerr), or of the innocent children themselves? More than 40 years on, it remains impossible to tell.
"I often say it is the best photographed film of mine although it won no photographic awards," remarks its cinematographer, Freddie Francis, now 88, whose other credits include such strikingly shot work as The French Lieutenant's Woman and Martin Scorsese's version of Cape Fear. The co-writer Truman Capote was equally proud of his contribution, calling The Innocents his "best film script". Pauline Kael described the film as "the best ghost movie I've ever seen". The great French director François Truffaut once happened to be eating in the same restaurant as Clayton. He had never met the English film-maker but had a waiter carry him over a napkin on which he had scribbled: "The Innocents is the best English film after Hitchcock goes to America."
Despite such plaudits, The Innocents has remained relatively neglected. Neither a Hammer horror-style genre piece nor a conventional literary adaptation, the film has always been hard to classify. It must have seemed an especially perverse endeavour when Clayton started shooting it. The early 1960s were the heyday of the "New Wave."
In the UK, film-makers were busy making gritty, realist movies about the experiences of rugby league players, factory workers, pregnant, working-class girls or day-dreaming office clerks. Clayton himself had contributed one of the key "angry young men" films, his 1959 adaptation of John Braine's Room At The Top. Set in a dank, industrial, northern town, this was as far away from the rarefied world of Henry James as it is possible to imagine. The Brighton-born Clayton, one of the more contrary figures in recent British film history, knew he was expected to make another movie in "kitchen sink" vein and therefore decided to do something completely different. "After the success of Room at the Top, I was offered dozens of films but they were all carbon copies of that," he told the press.
Clayton, who had first read James's The Turn of the Screw when he was 10, decided now that this would be the perfect vehicle with which to wrong-foot the critics. An added attraction was the subtlety and complexity of the source material. "I want to do The Innocents because it is just about the most difficult story to tell on screen. And that's a good challenge," he said.
An original script had already been written by William Archibald, based on his Broadway stage play. Clayton wasn't happy with this and drafted in John Mortimer to help with the construction of the story. Then he recruited Capote, whom he had met while working as an associate producer on John Huston's oddball caper, Beat the Devil. Capote quickly knocked off his version of the script. Not that the work was easy. "I thought it would be a snap because I loved The Turn of the Screw so much. But when I got into it, I saw how artful James had been. He did everything by allusion and indirection," Capote recalled.
Clayton was an arch-perfectionist. To his intense annoyance, his backers Twentieth Century Fox insisted he use the Cinemascope widescreen process, which they owned. This was ideal for sword-and-sandals epics but less suitable for an intimate and brooding English ghost story. It was left to Freddie Francis to customise the Cinemascope equipment so that the desired effects could be achieved. "He [Clayton] wanted to film to have an enclosed and slightly claustrophobic feel and so I devised some special filters [made up by two elderly ladies in Chalfont St Giles] and these managed to blur the sides of the frame so that one was never sure if anything was lurking there. It worked extremely well," says Francis.
Most of the film was shot on sets at Shepperton. The picturesque exteriors were filmed at Sheffield Park near Brighton and on the Bluebell Railway close by. For all his craftsmanship, Clayton wasn't above resorting to trick effects. The music and sound are used throughhout to crank up the tension. The early scenes are disorienting precisely because they're shot in sunshine rather than the gloomy shadow that one associates with haunted-house dramas. In a disconcertingly distant cameo, Michael Redgrave appears as the children's uncle. The scene in which he hires Miss Giddens is unnerving because there seems to be an unstated sexual tension between them and because he is so indifferent to the fate of the children in his charge.
The film works through a build-up of small, jarring details, insignificant in themselves, but which have a sinister cumulative effect. There is the shot of the precocious boy Miles (Martin Stephens) giving Miss Giddens what appears to be an innocent kiss. The shot is held for so long and Miss Giddens' response is so nervous that the moment somehow seems indecent. And the cheery housekeeper Mrs Grose (Meg Jenkins) becomes evasive as soon as Miss Giddens asks her about her predecessor as governor. The house itself grows ever more oppressive. Whenever we see the children close to water or high up in a tower, we immediately fear that something terrible will happen to them. Perhaps Clayton's biggest coup was to make Peter Wyngarde (later TV's louche sleuth Jason King) appear to be the embodiment of evil.
When The Innocents was released in the winter of 1961, even hardbitten Fleet Street hacks admitted that it gave them the collywobbles. "It is at least 20 years since I sat in a cinema and felt the skin crawling on the back of my head through sheer nervous tension, but I felt that creepy sensation once more this week," cowered the Daily Express's veteran reviewer Leonard Mosley. "I was terrified by a film in which no blood is visibly shed and no graves are dug up."
Forty-five years on, the eerie, uncanny quality of The Innocents hasn't diminished. In the intervening period, there has arguably been only one other film that matched its understated but all pervasive sense of menance: Alejandro Amenábar's The Others. Amenábar, like Clayton (to whom he acknowledged he was paying tribute), realised that the most effective way in which to chill an audience was to play on its emotions. Yes, there was still space for dark corridors, for doors that creak ominously and even for jolting editing tricks, but that was just the window dressing. The real secret was to hone in on feelings which every spectator must have shared at one time or another: bereavement, lust, suspicion, confusion and, above all, the child-like sense of dread.
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