A Victorian Horror Par Excellence: The Innocents (1961)
Jack Clayton’s revered horror masterpiece The Innocents (1961) re-entered contemporary film discourse with the release of Mark Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor series on Netflix earlier this month, both based on Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. The story is seemingly simple: Miss Giddens, a governess with no prior experience, is employed by a disinterested uncle to take charge of the discipline and upbringing of his two nieces - Miles and Flora - in the Victorian estate in the English country. However, the children seem to be under the influence of sinister forces: the ghosts of the former mistress, Miss Jessel and her lover, Peter Quaint, who Miss Giddens believes are out to corrupt and overtake “the innocents.”
What sets the movie apart as a classic of the genre is the way in which the supernatural and the psychological are intertwined to create a film that’s less about “the haunting,” and more about what gets defined as a haunting by whom. What Giddens calls “corruption” is directly tied to her own repressed desires, and the simultaneous anxiety and obsession with infantile sexuality that defines the Victorian era is faithfully represented as the guiding element behind Giddens’ ability to “see” the specters taking over sinless souls. Clayton’s visual choices make it clear that the “image” is bound to the “word” when it comes to human imagination. The children are indeed innocent, because we never see them take any malicious action, even under the presumed influence of their possessors. When asked why he was expelled from school, Miles ends up confessing that it’s because “[he] said things.” In these very words lie the key to the shifting understanding of sin (as well as crime and perversity) for the Victorian subject. The very definition of innocence changes, from not having committed a sinful act, to being someone who is defined or not defined by sin.
One could also read a reverse-Oedipal motive in Giddens’ relationship with the children, but further elaboration of it is needed that is beyond the scope of this review. This exquisite study of the psychological is brought to the script by Truman Capote (after Clayton was displeased with William Archibald’s take on the material,) and enhanced by the cinematographic choices made by Freddie Francis. The Innocents is a must addition to anyone’s October watchlist.