Revived as part of the British Film Institute’s celebration of all things Gothic, Clayton’s superlative 1961 adaptation of the Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has a subtlety and nuance that few contemporary horror movies can match. Truman Capote’s screenplay (which takes its title from William Archibald’s 1950 dramatisation of the James story) is deliberately open-ended. We are left to make up our own mind whether something diabolical really is going on or whether it’s all the result of the feverish imaginings of the repressed governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr).
The influence of The Innocents on other film-makers is self-evident. You can see its traces in everything from Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others to Jonathan Glazer’s Birth and even The Exorcist itself. Whereas most contemporary horror films use colour and throw in plenty of grand guignol blood-letting, this film is shot in black-and-white and is characterised throughout by its restraint.
There is no Hostel-style hyperbole here. The most shocking moments are the fleeting sight of a man’s face against a window or of a woman in a long dress spotted across a lake. Thanks to Freddie Francis’ richly detailed and atmospheric cinematography, the daylight scenes are often as unsettling as those set at night.
In spite of its Victorian country-house settings, the film is quietly subversive and touches on taboo subjects that even horror films today might shy away from. In particular, there is one startling moment when the boy Miles (Martin Stephens), whom Miss Giddens believes is possessed, kisses the governess with a strange, adult-like ardour. The very idea that Miles and his sister, Flora (Pamela Franklin), might be possessed by the souls of two former lovers who died in strange circumstances is itself strange and disturbing. They are innocent children and yet are behaving (and speaking) like worldly wise adults.
Clayton plays up some of the elements of traditional haunted-house drama. We have creaking stairs, labyrinthine corridors, nurseries full of sinister-looking toys. The mood of foreboding is set right at the outset, at Miss Giddens’ job interview with the children’s uncle (Michael Redgrave), to whom she seems attracted. He makes it very clear he wants nothing at all to do with the children.
Kerr gives an extraordinary, febrile performance as the governess. We are aware that she is – as Miles tells her – much prettier than the typical governess but also older. She regards the stories of the mercurial valet Quint (Peter Wyngarde), who treated his lover Miss Jessel so badly, with a mix of horror and erotic fascination. Her sensitivity is obvious. It’s up to us to work out whether she is a victim of her own horrible imaginings or whether she herself is a threat to the children in her care.