"The Innocents" is one of those films that prove subtlety and imagination can be ten times more terrifying than loud noises or things that go bump in the night. There are no raging spirits or escaped madmen here. Nor will you find that stock of today's second rate horror films -- the creature that embodies evil and finds amazingly obscure ways in which to slaughter naughty teenagers. No, this movie scars one's psyche with darkness and silence and possibility, all mingled with its refusal to give the audience an easy answer at the end.
Based on Henry James' novella, "The Turn Of The Screw," the story is deceptively simple. An inexperienced governess is hired to care for two orphaned children in an isolated British manor and slowly comes to believe the ghosts of the previous governess and her brutish lover are trying to possess the children's souls. Being a decent woman "who loves children," she fights back the only way she can -- by confronting the evil head on. But the question is, does the evil truly exist...or is it all in her own mind?
As told by James, the novella is a startling ghost story, without question. He adds his usual psychological insights to the characters, but never do you doubt the ghosts exist. The defining moment comes when Miss Giddens sees Quint's face in a dark window then later finds a locket bearing his portrait and comes to her realization, "Oh, he's a ghost!" But in the movie, Truman Capote and William Archibald reverse this sequence -- she finds the locket first and THEN sees the man's face in the window -- and all simple explanations go out the door.
Is Miss Giddens imagining things? Has she become overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising two precocious children without any sort of support from their selfish uncle? Is she merely sexually repressed and immature enough to transfer her crush on the uncle to a boy not even into puberty yet? And what of Flora, Miles' sister? If this is merely sexual repression on Miss Giddens' part, then why does she drag a little girl into the morass? Throughout the film, Miss Giddens offers evidence of her concerns -- a letter received from Miles' schoolmaster that she cannot fully share with Mrs. Grose because the woman cannot read; her awareness that the two innocents in her charge have a far more advanced knowledge of life than children that age normally would; stories told by Mrs. Grose about Miss Jessel and Quint and how they treated the children. So could it be the spirits of two miserable adults have come back to reclaim life in the persons of Miles and Flora? It could go either way.
There is not one wrong moment in this movie. Not one. The first time I saw it was in New York City on a double bill with "The Haunting" (1963), a "things that go bump in the night" kind of movie. The audience and I howled through that one, it was so much silly fun. And we chuckled through the first ten minutes of "The Innocents" (especially when Mrs. Grose tells Miss Giddens, "I'm SO glad you're here," with a little quiver in her voice), but by the end of that film (and I use the word "film" deliberately), the entire theater was dead silent. Any film that can shut up a room full of rowdy New Yorkers has got to be damned good.
So...is "The Innocents" a ghost story or psychological study? Who can say? And to be honest, who cares? It is, at the very least, a damned good movie...and at the very best, a horror story that makes "The Shining," "Rosemary's Baby," "The Others" and even "Psycho" (a movie I love) look like the works of children. That this film is not available on DVD is a travesty.