It’s one of life’s great pleasures to see a favorite film on the big screen, and tonight marked my third time catching one of the all-time great ghost stories, THE INNOCENTS (1961), in glorious panoramic 35mm. This is a film that absolutely demands to be seen as huge as possible with its clever peripheral shocks coming at you right out of the corner of your eyes, and judging by the gasps from the audience, it still works like a charm.
Actress Illeana Douglas introduced the film, which gave her a sleepless night as a child courtesy of a TV airing, and quipped right away about the film’s big lesson, “I wouldn’t wanna be a governess in a Victorian mansion.” She also discussed the film’s innovative cinematography by the great Freddie Francis (who also directed numerous horror films himself), including his method of flooding so much light onto the set that star Deborah Kerr had to wear sunglasses until the cameras started rolling. Douglas could vouch for this firsthand since she appeared in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 version of Cape Fear, which Francis also shot with lights so intense the set regularly went up to 120 degrees.
Movie fans love arguing about the merits of THE INNOCENTS versus the other big black-and-white spooky ’60s scope classic, The Haunting, but what lunatic would want to have a world without either of them? In any case, this was the first cinematic adaptation of Henry James’s classic novella, The Turn of the Screw, which English teachers still point to as a textbook example of how to suggest everything while explicitly showing nothing at all.
The film was just the second full-length feature for Jack Clayton after his auspicious debut with the acclaimed Room at the Top in 1959. However, he already had some affinity for the uncanny courtesy of his Oscar-winning 1955 short film, “The Bespoke Overcoat,” and he would later return to the genre in 1983 with the underrated but production-plagued Something Wicked This Way Comes. You could also make a solid case for classifying another one of his films as horror, too: Our Mother’s House, an unnerving 1967 feature reuniting him with one of this film’s stars, Pamela Franklin,
The opening credits for THE INNOCENTS always get a reaction from an audience when they hit the screenplay credit for legendary writer Truman Capote, who penned this with John Mortimer along with significant material from the 1950 Broadway version by William Archibald. In addition to Kerr and Franklin, the film is no less impressive on the acting front as well with Michael Redgrave offering a memorably cryptic single (but lengthy) opening scene as the hands-off uncle, while young Martin Stephens (ditching his bleach blond mop from the previous year’s Village of the Damned) is remarkable as the tormented and possibly malevolent Miles. He switched careers to become an architect before the decade’s end, leaving us to wonder what else he might have achieved in front of the camera. That said, he scales heights here at the ripe old age of eleven that many actors never reach at all.
As for how many sleepless nights this film will cause after tonight’s screening… well, perhaps we’ll find out tomorrow.