The Innocents


In my last post I spoke about the general influences on my next project. But now I want to delve deeper into one of the ones I didn't mention last time round. While my script doesn't really share an awful lot of plot details with this film, it does share several more atmospheric moments. The sense of lurking dread, the uncomfortableness of the location and the increasingly untrustworthy perspective of the protagonist are all things that play big parts in my film. And they are all things that appear in the film I want to discuss, and have arguably never been been bettered. So, without further ado, let's discuss...

The Innocents.

Released in 1961, The Innocents is one of the quintessential haunted house movies. It tells the story of a young, and somewhat prudish, woman who takes on the role of Governess for two children in a spooky old country estate known as Bly.

Based on the book The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, the script was adapted by William Archibald, who had previously adapted the book for stage, and none other than Truman Capote. Archibald and Capote stripped away a lot of things from the book to make the film version more "minimalist". This doesn't prevent the film from being any less terrifying.

It was directed by Jack Clayton, who keeps things very simple, but this only adds to the horror and the unnerving rising tension. We're never certain if what we're seeing is accurate or not. Miss Giddens - Deborah Kerr in what is widely regarded as the role of her career - is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, and it makes things even more unsettling as the pieces of the puzzle slowly begin to fall into place.

I have a very specific memory of the first time I saw this film. I was young, maybe 8 or 9, and I had it recorded on the end of another film on VHS. I can't remember what the other film was, but then I suppose it wasn't that important. The point was that I found The Innocents on there afterwards and, lo and behold, I was terrified by it. It was late, the other film had finished and I couldn't be arsed to get out of bed and switch the TV off...

I only ever watched it the once.

It was a specific image that stuck in my head, and I spoke about it in my Letterboxd review of the film, but the moment in which Miss Giddens is sat with Flora by the lake and she looks across to the see the "ghost" of the former Governess standing amongst the reeds really shook me. I'm not sure what it was about the moment, but it's stayed with me forever.

The sound of the low humming, the noise of the reeds, or perhaps just the simple fact that the "ghost" never actually does anything but stand and stare. All of these things just made me feel very uncomfortable, and I've never quite forgotten in.

I bought the film the other day on DVD (you can buy it here, and please do, it's a lovely restoration by the BFI and it has a booklet with an essay on the film by Jeremy Dyson of The League of Gentlemen and Ghost Stories), and it wasn't until watching it again then, as an adult, that I realised just how terrifying the rest of the film is as well, but that image still stuck out as one of the most haunting.

I think what makes the film so frightening, and what inspiration I took from it when writing my own screenplay, was the way in which Freddie Francis, the DoP, shoots the scenes. Francis is perhaps one of the most underappreciated DoP's of all time, and you just have to look at his filmography to see why. His career as a director has also been exceptional. The way he shoots things in The Innocents is a key part of what makes it so horrifying. The house is very much a part of what we're seeing. Be it the reeds, the lake and the bridge in the aforementioned moment, or simply just the long winding corridors or darkened corners at the edges of the frame.

That sense of uncertainty, that something may be lurking just out of sight, is something that I really want to capture with my next film. I want the audience to be on their toes, constantly wondering why a shot is framed in such a way, why can't they see beyond a certain point, what is lurking out there in the shadows? What horror may be coming?

If you haven't seen The Innocents I strong recommend you do. It really is a brilliant film, and one that has shaped the very fabric of the "ghost movie" ever since. From films with very clear and obvious influences like The Others all the way through to perhaps less likely, but no less inspired, films like Crimson Peak, The Innocents is a movie that casts a long shadow.

And that woman in the reeds really is bloody horrifying.

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© Alex Secker 2018