In its finest moments, The Innocents is deeply unsettling in a way few body horrors ever rival. It is a masterclass in psychological horror, in this respect. The film is not without its flaws, but for the most part in remains one of the eeriest British horror films.
Young governess Miss Giddens is employed to look after two young orphans by their uncle at their country house in Victorian England. Soon after she arrives at the idyllic estate, Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the place is haunted, and her fears for the children grow…
The Innocents excels in the way in which it generates a sinister atmosphere. Frequently the action is seen from the viewpoint of protagonist Miss Giddens. Therefore, when she is initially enamoured with her new surroundings, it is easy to agree with her. Similarly, when unusual events start to occur, it is understandable why she is so perturbed; after all her perception is the one the audience shares.
Director Jack Clayton builds tension slowly but assuredly in The Innocents. At first the pace is slow, as little by little it is revealed that something is amiss. What works adeptly is the way any supernatural activity always sits firmly in the category of the uncanny. As the apparitions are seen from Miss Giddens’ point of view, it is ambiguous as to whether such things are occurring, or whether they are figments of the protagonist’s mind. The slow reveal employed in The Innocents allows ideas to ruminate in the mind of the viewer. What we imagine is often far worse than what a film is able to depict.
When supernatural activity becomes apparent, it is suitably chilling. As there is a wait for such incidents to occur, anticipation has been adequately built. With the skillful use of lighting and cinematography the atmosphere is ripe. After a few false scares, Miss Giddens experience with the apparitions is incredibly tense.
After such a wonderful build up, the climax feels rushed in comparison. Although there are moments of fear, it feels unsatisfactory given the uncanny feel to the rest of the film. Furthermore, whilst the sound aids immensely in generating the atmosphere, at times it is simply to high pitched and causes more discomfort than anything else.
Deborah Kerr gives a formidable performance as Miss Giddens; both her love for the children and her torment over events appear sincere. Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as children Miles and Flora are perfectly cast. The unsettling nature of the film owes a lot to their performances.
The Innocents is not the greatest horror film, but it should take its place in the upper echelons of haunted house films. Fans of this sub-genre should definitely check it out.
The Innocents was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Deborah Kerr season.