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20th Century Fox presents
The Innocents (1961)

"Sometimes, one can't help imagining things."
- Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: October 04, 2005

Stars: Deborah Kerr, Megs Jenkins, Michael Redgrave, Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephens, Peter Wyngarde
Director: Jack Clayton

Manufacturer: Deluxe Digital Studios
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (supernatural and adult themes, intense moments)
Run Time: 01h:39m:51s
Release Date: September 06, 2005
UPC: 024543202950
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A+A-B+ D

DVD Review

Gory, gratuitous slasher flicks are a dime a dozen, and cost about as much to produce. Well-crafted horror, on the other hand, takes special care, requiring just the right mix of atmosphere, suspense, and insidious villainy to create a menacing mood. The Innocents possesses all those elements and more, and reminds us just how unsettling a good thriller can be. Jack Clayton's taut, riveting film spills not a drop of blood, but still keeps us on the edge of our seats, deliciously taunting our senses while stimulating our brains. Few chillers are as complex and ambiguous, which makes The Innocents a fascinating tale to dissect and debate (after the tension subsides).

A faithful adaptation of Henry James' classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as the demure yet gutsy Miss Giddens, an inexperienced Victorian governess who ventures to a remote English estate to care for the orphaned niece and nephew of an aloof London businessman (Michael Redgrave). Eager to wash his hands of the burdensome children, the uncle cautions Miss Giddens that she will be completely on her own, and is not to bother him with any issues under any circumstances. "Whatever happens," he tells her, "you must handle it alone."

The governess takes those words to heart, and soon becomes an ardent advocate for Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) when strange happenings seem to threaten their safety. Almost from the moment she arrives at Bly House, Miss Giddens hears voices and sees apparitions. At first, she questions her sanity, but Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), the house maid, validates her visions by telling her the sordid tale of the master's roguish valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), and his passionate yet abusive affair with the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop). According to Mrs. Grose, Miles, desperate for a father figure, worshipped Quint, while Flora grew deeply attached to Miss Jessel. Like puppies, the children followed them everywhere, yet the lovers crudely exploited the adoration, corrupting "the innocents" by allowing them to witness their trysts and brawls. Then, one cold winter evening, a drunken Quint slipped on an icy step and the ensuing fall crushed his skull, killing him. His sudden death so devastated Miss Jessel, she lost her will to live and soon "died of a broken heart." End of story.

Or is it? After hearing the disturbing yarn, Miss Giddens becomes convinced the dead pair's spirits still roam the estate and prey upon the souls of Miles and Flora, egging them on to perform dangerous, filthy deeds. With Mrs. Grose's help, she vows to exorcise the demons, and thus save the children from a wretched fate.

The Turn of the Screw remains one of history's most controversial and oft-analyzed pieces of literature, and The Innocents wisely refuses to dumb it down for shock value. On the contrary, the film slyly embraces the novella's intricacies, driving viewers to distraction in an attempt to decipher its sketchy plot and make sense of its provocative themes (sexual repression and incest among them). While it's possible to enjoy The Innocents as a traditional ghost story and take the bizarre events at face value, it's the subtleties and ambiguities littered throughout the William Archibald-Truman Capote script that help shape it into a great movie.

Each sequence sparks or reinforces questions. How can Miss Giddens see and hear the spirits when no one else does? Could they be a product of her dreams or imagination? Could she be fabricating the events in a desperate attempt to gain the attention of the children's attractive uncle? Could she herself be possessed… or insane? No answers are forthcoming, which makes the film both fascinating and maddening. Like a bad dream, it worms its way into the recesses of our brain, where it percolates long after the shock of its climax has faded.

Director Clayton (Room at the Top) never resorts to cheap thrills to jolt the audience; instead, he masterfully uses atmosphere to ever-so-slowly build suspense. With the help of cinematographer Freddie Francis, he infuses the idyllic, tranquil manor setting with just enough eeriness to keep us in a constant state of unease. And when he scares us, he does it the old-fashioned way. A creaky floor plank and sudden gust of wind are the only ingredients Clayton needs to raise our pulse levels, and he employs them to perfection. Of course, much of the action transpires at night (with a requisite thunderstorm or two for good measure), but several disturbing events also occur in broad daylight, which lends them a spookier edge. The ominous mood persists even during straightforward dialogue scenes, and, unlike most contemporary chillers, no comic relief cuts the tension.

In addition, The Innocents possesses another critical element standard horror films lack—great acting. Deborah Kerr exhibits so many facets of Miss Giddens' character, they're impossible to digest in a single viewing. Unlocking the secrets of the governess is the key to understanding the story, yet Kerr plays her hand close to the vest. With amazing subtlety, she provides glimpses of the neuroses, girlish romanticism, and hidden desires that make Miss Giddens such a controversial figure, and her pitch-perfect tone keeps us transfixed throughout the film. Kerr holds the dubious distinction of garnering the most Best Actress Oscar nominations (6) without a victory—although she did finally win one of those meaningless and long-overdue honorary Oscars in 1994—yet the Academy completely and unbelievably passed her over for The Innocents, which ranks as one of her finest performances. Go figure.

As the stalwart Mrs. Grose, the always marvelous Jenkins files a warm, endearing portrayal, and Clayton draws excellent work from his two child actors. Already a veteran of the horror genre at age 12, Stephens starred in the equally unnerving Village of the Damned the year before, but the way he combines childish ebullience with a dark, intense maturity in The Innocents is quite remarkable in one so young. He shares some shamefully intimate moments with Kerr, yet handles them all with aplomb. Franklin, who would go on to play a pivotal role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie eight years later, possesses just the right fresh-faced cuteness and natural charm to make Flora come to life, and Redgrave enjoys an inspired cameo as the stuffy, selfish uncle.

Fans of lurid shockers will undoubtedly find The Innocents a bore, but those who appreciate fine films marked by impeccable production values, narrative complexity, challenging themes, and superb acting will be gripped by Jack Clayton's brilliant adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. Even if thrillers give you the willies, steel yourself for this unforgettable supernatural tale. It's well worth the palpitations.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen1.33:1 - P&S
Original Aspect Ratioyesno

Image Transfer Review: The double-sided disc includes both full and widescreen versions, and few imperfections detract from the top-notch picture quality. The black-and-white image is consistently sharp, with rich blacks, a wide gray scale, and light grain adding texture and depth to the supernatural story. Contrast and shadow detail—essential aspects of a thriller—are both superb, and only a faint smattering of defects dot the print. This exceptional effort really immerses the viewer in the film, beautifully capturing the remote English setting, spooky goings-on, and riveting performances.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby stereo track provides clear, clean audio with no distortion, even during intense scenes. Although a 5.1 track would really help creep us out, the two-channel mix offers a fine semblance of surround sound, and supplies a few good jolts. Bass frequencies are solid, and while a slight tinny quality pervades the track, no pops or crackles disrupt the eerie mood. Dynamic range is impressive, making whispers and shrieks equally understandable, and fine details like chirping birds and gentle breezes are well rendered, adding pronounced atmosphere to the film.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Cabinet of Caligari, The Legend of Hell House, Phantom of the Paradise
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The Innocents could really benefit from an audio commentary analyzing both the production and Henry James' novella, but sadly Fox keeps this release skeletal. A few trailers are the only extras offered, and that just doesn't cut it for a movie of this caliber.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

One of the all-time classic thrillers, The Innocents remains a nail-biting exercise in supernatural suspense, distinguished by masterful direction, magnetic performances, and unforgettable atmosphere. Too bad Fox didn't complement the excellent video and audio transfers with the kind of probing supplements the film requires, but such an omission shouldn't keep serious movie fans from adding this masterful chiller to their collection. Highly recommended.


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