The Innocents

21 July 2009 at 13:08 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Since the middle of last week, I’ve been working on a post about a new indie horror film and some true crimes that may have inspired it. Like many of my previous posts, it’s become a sprawling stream-of-consciousness kind of piece already exceeding 1000 words, and I still have another film I would like to incorporate into the entry. So, rather than expedite that post, I decided to wrack my brain for something a bit more manageable to write about in the mean time, and I remembered this incredible film I watched several months ago called The Innocents.

The original poster art for The Innocents.  Image taken from

The original poster art for The Innocents. Image taken from

This 1961 film based on the theatrical version of Henry JamesThe Turn of the Screw and adapted by Truman Capote stars Deborah Kerr as a young governess to two orphaned children adopted by their wealthy uncle. The uncle tells Kerr’s Miss Giddens that she will be sent to his country manor where the children live with a few staff, and that he expects not to be bothered with any matters relating to the children. Undeterred, Miss Giddens travels to the estate where she meets Flora, the niece, while the nephew Miles attends boarding school. While Miss Giddens settles in and gets to know the charming Flora, she receives a letter from Miles’ boarding school indicating that he will be sent home due to bad behavior. Oddly, however, Miles acts much like his sister when he returns, quickly winning over Miss Giddens. But strange things start to happen around the estate, such as the scene below:

The figure of a man also begins to appear to Miss Giddens, and after some investigation, she learns that the children’s previous governess, Miss Jessel, and the groundskeeper, Quint, died under strange circumstances. She also finds out that the couple carried on a sexual relationship, and that their lack of discretion may have perverted the children. As a result, Miss Giddens attempts to purge the children of the demons that she believes possess them. Her efforts to draw out a confession from the children ultimately result in tragedy. Miss Giddens traumatizes Flora, prompting the housekeeper to take her away, and upon forcing Miles to admit that Quint possesses him, Miles dies. Here is that final scene:

The Innocents intrigued me in part because it deals explicitly with children and sexuality. Specifically, the film’s protagonist believes in ideological constructions of childhood as a period of innocence and psychological vulnerability. As a result, the discovery that the children may have witnessed sexual acts proves deeply troublesome for Miss Giddens. Interestingly, it’s Giddens’ cure that kills Miles in the scene above, rather than the ghosts themselves. I prefer, then, to read The Innocents as a cautionary tale about the damaging impact of adult paranoia with regard to children’s sexuality. Obviously, I’m reading somewhat against the grain, given that the text seems invested in presenting the space of the house as genuinely haunted, but I believe that the film’s outcome supports my interpretation.

The kiss at the end of the above scene also proves to be a fascinating element of the film. According to IMDB, the film’s executives worried about how audiences would react to the scene. I wonder what it means that Miss Giddens, after prodding the child to admit that he sees the ghost, kisses him so intensely. The moment seems filled with regret, leading me to wonder if Miss Giddens questions her insistence on confronting the children.

Despite my reading, the film’s trailer replicates the very discourses of childhood innocence that I believe fuel the protagonist’s paranoia:

Notice that the trailer explicitly labels the film as “A new and adult motion picture experience” (my emphasis). Given that pulpy horror films of the fifties often appealed to children and teenagers, it makes sense that the film’s advertisers would seek to establish the film’s artistic credentials by labeling it “adult.” But I also see the label as a warning to parents: you can attend this film, but please don’t bring your impressionable children. Again, the mentality that the film may corrupt children in the same way the ghosts supposedly possessed “the innocents” create an odd parralel between the text as narrative and the film as exhibited material.

Of course, horror films have gone on to explore this very notion of text as destructive force within the narrative. One famous example, the American version of The Ring actually uses audio from The Innocents in the cursed tape that dooms the film’s protagonist. Here’s that tape, and you can hear Miles’ muffled singing about 40 seconds into the clip:

That the filmmakers of The Ring used portions of The Innocents was likely an intentional alusion to the latter’s themes of corruption through witnessing lewd acts. While The Ring and other films such as Videodrome explicate the themes implied in the trailer for The Innocents, neither specifically refers to generation as making victims more vulnerable to the images presented in the tapes. It’s the generational factor and the film’s focus on sexuality that distinguishes The Innocents from other texts concerning haunting.


1 Comment

  1. Annie Petersen said,

    The Innocents derives some of its sexual tension from the Henry James text on which it is based — James, like so many authors writing at the turn of the century, is all about sublimated sexual anxieties and tension. I haven’t seen the film, but the book made me feel uneasy and super freaked out — part of the subtle invocation of such anxieties.

    On a tangental note, The Innocents (and Turn of the Screw) remind me of the Nicole quasi-horror pic The Others — even if there isn’t a governess, there’s a related ‘turn of the screw’ and a rapidly disintegrating female protagonist, addled by doubt and devious children. I also love the term ‘turn of the screw’ to describe the work of the psychological thriller of recent years — often described as ‘mind f***” films. What they’re really doing is twisting your understanding one last time…and, in some ways, that overturning of understanding (or narrative, of self, of mise-en-scene, of place in the world) is what proves truly terrifying.

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