It killed me to learn that Henry James’ original “The Turn of the Screw” had been published around Christmastime, because ghost stories at Christmas are something of a British tradition. “A Christmas Carol” notwithstanding, “Screw,” and its elegant and disturbing 1961 British film, doesn’t feel at all like the sort of thing you’d snuggle in with on Christmas Eve. It’s even a little too dark for Halloween, with its moral and supernatural ambiguity suffusing every frame. It is, as historian Christopher Frayling puts it on one of the extras on the new Criterion Collection edition of “The Innocents,” one of cinema’s great ghost stories adapted from one of literature’s great ghost stories.
Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, a young governess in Victorian England who has been charged with looking after two orphaned young children, Miles and Flora. They live at their uncle’s vast estate, a labyrinth of nooks and crannies, with gardens overgrown with vegetation and dotted with odd statuary. The place seems cheery enough (at least for Victorian England) but there’s one blot on the landscape — the previous governess died last year.
Slowly, Miss Giddens discovers that not all is well at the estate. By day, she sees momentary apparitions on the grounds, including a man in black on the roof, and a woman in black among the reeds near the pond. At night, the walls of the mansions reverberate with faint but unmistakably strange sounds, creaking doors, nasty laughter. The children seem to be withholding secrets from her, often speaking in language well beyond their years. Even fairly ordinary and explainable occurrences, like a fat black beetle crawling out of the mouth of a stone cherub, are horrifying.
The Criterion Blu-ray does the beautifully sinister look of “The Innocents” justice, the whites of Kerr’s terrified face contrasting against the absolute blacks around her. (A favorite shot is when a man’s face recedes into the blackness, and for a second all we see is the two glittering pinpoints of his eyes.) Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis thought the widescreen format mandated by the studio would dilute the claustrophobic terror they wanted, so they cheated a little, adding a subtle filter around the edges so the image seems almost oval, as if seen through a peephole. In other shots, where two people are speaking, one is often in the foreground while the other in the background, adding to the sense of isolation, the feeling that something is not quite right.
What keeps the audience in its thrall, as Miss Giddens grows more and more terrified and unhinged, is that the screenplay (mainly written by Truman Capote) refuses to let us feel certain about what is going on. Are there real ghosts in the mansion, or is it all the product of Miss Giddens’ imagination. We’ve seen that before in horror movies, but “The Innocents” is rigorous in its ambiguity. Every single shot of something supernatural or eerie in the film is preceded by a shot of Kerr looking, so we’re always seeing things through her (possibly untrustworthy) eyes. There is one shot at the end of the film that breaks this rule, but it hardly gives us definitive proof one way or the other.
The supplements on the Criterion disc include an extensive interview with Frayling about the film, where he tours the grounds where the exteriors to “The Innocent” were filmed. Frayling also does a commentary track that includes some of the same material.