Watching Crimson Peak last month put me in the mood for a spooky story. Something old, set in the past, and with ghosts. Luckily, I had 1961’s The Innocents on hand. Guillermo del Toro regards this as one of his top horror movies and you can really feel its influence on Crimson Peak
The Innocents is based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. Sadly, I actually haven’t read this work but I’m familiar with James’ writing enough to know that the supernatural in his stories is used as a means of discovering people’s psychological states. This is a case where the ghosts may not be ghosts.
The movie stars Deborah Kerr as rookie governess Miss Giddens.
She’s interviewed by the unnamed Wealthy Uncle (Michael Redgrave) who only cares that Miss Giddens take full responsibility for his niece and nephew. Giddens takes the post and moves to Bly, his country estate.
There she meets and is taken with his niece, Flora (Pamela Franklin).
She’s a sweet girl but is somewhat creepy, especially in this scene where she observes a butterfly fighting off a spider.
Her creepiness factor is increased when she predicts her older brother, Miles (Martin Stephens), will be returning home from school despite the fact that the holidays aren’t near.
In fact, Miles does return after being expelled. He’s sweet, smart, and incredibly flirtatious.
Miss Giddens finds the children to be unsettling and is troubled by the entire estate, especially when she sees a man on the tower. She learns that Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the Uncle’s valet, died on the grounds. He’d been engaged in an emotionally abusive affair with the children’s first nanny, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jesop). They were indiscreet and it’s possible the children observed them. Miles especially admired Quint and saw him as a father figure.
At first Miss Giddens thinks the estate is merely haunted but she becomes obsessed with the idea that Quint and Miss Jessel are possessing the children, especially after Miles recites a poem saying, “What shall I sing to my lord from my window? What shall I sing for my lord will not stay? What shall I sing for my lord will not listen? Where shall I go when my lord is away?”
She tries to exorcise the ghosts from the children but how do you free someone who isn’t possessed? The haunting at Bly is less about the actual ghosts and more about Miss Giddens’ mental state. The children in the movie are incredibly creepy but this may be a result of the fact that they’re parentless, left to be raised by boarding schools and the housekeeper. Miles is incredibly flirtatious and shares two kisses with Miss Giddens but is he possessed or just emulating the behavior of someone he admired? In the end, the results of Miss Giddens’ interference are disastrous.
This movie isn’t the kind of movie that’s jump at you scary. It’s more intense and atmospheric, like the sequence where Miss Giddens searches for the source of unearthly voices and ends up in the room she shares with Flora.
In a lot of haunted house movies, I end up saying that the house is a character. That isn’t true for this movie. I don’t think we ever even see a full shot of the house. The house is all large windows with billowy drapes and fireplaces but I don’t think the audience sees a full room. Unusually, the movie is mostly tight shots with incredibly stark lighting.
This is to emphasize that it isn’t the house that’s the problem. Stephen King once said something like “Bad places attract bad characters.” This isn’t the case, the problem is the people inside, not some kind of inherent wickedness. Even with their flaws, Quint and Miss Jessel exhibited nothing more than usual wickedness when they were alive.
Another thing that makes the movie so unusual is the use of synthesized music and ambient sounds as opposed to the usual orchestral score. It works well and is an unusual choice for that time period.
In the end, the movie is less about ghosts and more about Miss Giddens becoming unraveled. She’s a vicar’s daughter who’s extremely innocent and becomes extremely unglued in the face of prepubescent flirting. You can even see a change in her clothes as the movie progresses. At first her wardrobe is primarily light but as time passes it becomes darker and darker, perhaps hinting at the heavy mourning Miss Jessel went into fter Quint’s death. In the end, the viewer is left wondering if the children were ever possessed and if it isn’t Miss Giddens that’s really possessed.