Based on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents remains one of the very best ghost films. As it is re-released for the festive season, Michael Newton explores the freedoms and horrors of trusting your own imagination
Thursday 26 December 2013
One late Victorian Christmas Eve, around the fire, a man settles down to read aloud to the other house-guests the manuscript of a ghost story. His tale is that of a governess in another country house decades before, and of her two charges, a boy called Miles and his sister, Flora. Removed from the world in an idyll of apparent purity, things darken as the governess perceives, or perhaps merely imagines, that the children's last governess, Miss Jessel, and her Heathcliff-esque lover, the virile servant, Peter Quint, have returned from the dead to possess the children. And then a darker fear comes to her mind: what if the children are complicit in their corruption? What if they comprehend the presence of these beckoning ghosts, and welcome them? What do the children know?
This is the premise of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898), one of the best of all literary ghost stories, and the source for one of the very best ghost films, Jack Clayton'sThe Innocents (1961). Clayton's movie is being re-released for the festive season, while in a new book in the BFI's Film Classics series Christopher Frayling offers a superb account of its origins and its spectral attractions.
The tradition of a ghost story for Christmas seems to be a Victorian one, popularised by Charles Dickens. There are good reasons for the link: the long nights where the cosiness and warmth at home contrast with the murk and chill outside; the family associations of the season that draw us back to the home, the natural location for most ghost stories. There may even be faint traces of a response to the incarnation that Christmas celebrates, the ghost in the stories standing for a spiritual remnant that lingers once our bodies are consigned to the earth.
In its own way, James's tale has become a modern myth, reinterpreted by Clayton, but also transformed into Benjamin Britten's authentically spooky opera, or reimagined faintly in Susan Hill's excellent The Woman in Black. Like other gothic classics, it has broken its own bounds and possessed the spirit of later creations. The reverberations that the story has elicited correspond to its own sense of indebtedness: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre haunts The Turn of the Screw, just as it and Clayton's film haunt Alejandro Amenábar's The Others (2001).
The film's casting similarly alerts us to echoes of other works. As the governess (named Miss Giddens in the film), Deborah Kerr evokes recollections of her previous roles: she had good form for the part, memorably playing a laced-up governess in The King and I (1956) and having already been terrorised in a remote house in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's magnificent Black Narcissus (1947). Her earnest intensity provides the keynote of the film. It is a rigorously serious movie, remarkable for the absence of the nervous laughter that characterises many ghost movies; there's no wisecracking, cowardly Bob Hope figure here to slacken the tension with a gag.
The Turn of the Screw may be a tale told at Christmas, but the story itself plays out in the brilliant radiance of spring and summer. For a gothic work, The Innocents is a noticeably brightly lit movie, limpid with sunshine. (It's all cinematic illusion, of course – the film was shot in February.) There's the blanched effect of Kerr's Scottish pallor, her blonde hair; Miles's horse is white, his pigeons are white, the roses in the gardens are white, and the governess's nightgown too; at night, she stalks the house holding aloft a burning candle, a symbol, it appears, of a fragile enlightenment. And then comes the shade, the unlit corridors, the zones of blackness at the periphery of the screen. Images flit past, too rapid or unclear to be grasped; sounds resonate without origin, voices ricochet around the panelled walls; laughter strikes and vanishes; someone, somewhere, sobs.
The great problem of ghosts on stage is the solidity, the fleshiness of the spectre; for all that make up and lighting can do, an actor must embody them. Film both inherits this difficulty and, by virtue of the medium's own evanescence, sometimes transcends it. While Peter Wyngarde's Quint is all vulgar, physical presence, Clytie Jessop's Miss Jessel remains the ideal cinematic ghost, perhaps the best (that is, the most uncanny, most disturbing) apparition ever put on film; it's hard to see how CGI could improve on her. Few on-screen spirits have seemed so genuinely disembodied. We glimpse her at a distance, across the lake, awkwardly standing among the reeds; black-dressed, her hair dank, her eyes scoured out by shadows. Although she is there before our eyes, she still seems insubstantial, no more than an image, a faded photograph, a glimmer in the lens. We look at her, but fail to know how we see her.
These hesitancies in trusting our perceptions take us to the heart of James's story. Ever since Edmund Wilson argued this case in the 1930s, debate has turned on the question of whether the ghosts are really present (and therefore the governess is a heroine battling with demons) or whether they are in fact only dreamed up by her – or even perhaps there but unperceived by her young charges. In the latter cases, our heroine becomes a deluded abuser, tormenting innocent children with a knowledge they ought not to possess.
The Turn of the Screw and The Innocents depend on our culture's strange unease about children. It's there in all gothic tales – a genre that depends upon the recalling of childhood fears. This is often accomplished through using the accoutrements of the playroom – the dolls and puppets, or the nursery rhymes of Britten's opera – or by returning us to infantile terrors, back to the moment when something lurked beneath the bed, waited in the shadows of the wardrobe, or brooded deep in the gloom at the top of the stairs.
Moreover children themselves have come to seem uncanny. From my own experience, I know that this feeling is not merely an adult's one. As a boy in the 1970s, watching Village of the Damned (1960), Wolf Rilla's adaptation of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, I was terrorised by the sight of that movie's blond, Hitler-youth-style alien children. My fear was about children who were not acting like children, whose stares suggested the possession of hidden powers, of a more than grown-up knowledge. Their leader was acted with sinister force by Martin Stephens, who in The Innocents plays a similarly disturbing Miles. This is a boy ready to kiss his governess with an out‑of-place intensity, one which she appears, at the film's grim close, to return. In watching The Innocents, there is a kind of perpetual double-take, akin to Miss Giddens's doubts, whereby sometimes we see two sweet child-actors, and sometimes two jarringly sinister monsters. The governess desires children to be unspotted; but this yearning for wholesomeness necessarily evokes the fear that it might be corrupted. Once we create a space for innocence, it seems we force ourselves anxiously to picture its fall.
In the course of both James's novella and Clayton's film, the audience may wonder who is the real object of fear here – the ghosts or the governess? If asked, the children might declare it is the latter, terrorised as they are by Miss Giddens's insistence that they own up to their (supposed) hidden knowledge. So it is that several times in the film, as in the book, our heroine stands or sits where the ghosts just were, one governess in the place of another; doing so sometimes strikes fear into her fellow servants, just as the ghosts have aroused fear in her. Miss Giddens supplants Miss Jessel, and the governess's terror is that the dead Quint and Miss Jessel wish to merge with Miles and Flora. Statues of cupids, satyrs and garden gods surround the house, images of a disturbingly hedonistic pagan past, and so the dead lovers' illicit lust beleaguers and perhaps invades the governess's pious Victorian virtue.
Henry James declared that the novelist was someone on whom nothing is lost, and certainly few people have ever been so able to garner all the distinctions and subtleties of human behaviour. Yet this facility was also potentially a kind of trap, the nose for nuance at fault when misapplied, when projected on to the necessary secrets and privacies of childhood. In reading The Turn of the Screw, in watching The Innocents, it can seem as though James was offering up a self-criticism, exposing the moral dangers of his own curiosity, those finely discriminating habits of mind. Unlike the sturdy, kind-hearted, illiterate housekeeper Mrs Grose, the governess falls into the trap of over-reading things, fantastically assigning the worst possible motives and meanings to what may after all be two blameless, ordinarily naughty children. So it is that The Innocentsis a film that infiltrates and celebrates the imagination, while recognising that faculty's pitfalls. For, it argues, while the imaginative may understand situations and people better, sometimes, to their and our danger, they see rather more than is there.
The Innocents – review
This sinister ghost story, adapted from a Henry James novella, makes your blood run cold
Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), now on national rerelease, is an elegant, sinister and scalp-prickling ghost story – as scary in its way as Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist. It has to be the most sure-footed screen adaptation of Henry James, taken from his 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, clarifying some of the original's ambiguities and obscurities, but without damaging the story's subtlety. Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a governess hired to look after two children in a country estate: Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). Miss Giddens finds something she describes as "secret, whispery, and indecent": the house is haunted by the souls of Peter Quint, a drunken, disreputable valet, and Miss Jessel, the former governess whom he seduced. Without admitting it, the children can see the ghosts as well; the spectres have become their secret, parasitical friends. Flora's pertly knowing innocence and Miles's insolent adult hauteur show how the children become possessed and corrupted by them. Clayton brilliantly uses slow dissolves to create ghostly superimpositions, and the harmless squeals of bath-time fun, or squeakings of a pencil, suggest uncanny screams. The most disturbing scenes take place in daylight: Quint's appearance in the garden is heralded by the sudden silencing of the birdsong. It's a moment that makes your blood run cold. The whole film does that.