I love subtle, suggestive horror & weirdness in films, but really effective spookiness is quite hard to find. The industry itself — whether in the form of its producers, its studio executives, or its “audience” (someone’s idea of its audience, anyway, because they certainly don’t include me in that) — can’t help but give in to the urge to sensationalism, and even a little bit of sensationalism can ruin a perfectly good fright. For me, the more subtle and understated the horror, the more your imagination is teased and your rationality piqued, the better. That tense balance where your conscious mind can’t understand what it’s seeing but your subconscious can is what it’s all about. As soon as you add in other elements — a jump, a laugh, a gross-out — and you give your rationality enough excuse not to have to pay it any more attention. The effect is ruined. The Innocents, a 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is a classic example of a horror film that really does work on this level, even if it does have flaws.
The flaws, to my mind, are almost all in the person of Deborah Kerr, who plays Miss Giddens, the inexperienced (and highly ineffectual) governess sent to look after a pair of orphaned children on a big, lonely estate. The previous governess, Miss Jessel, has died, and Miss Giddens soon learns there was another death shortly before, that of the sadistic manservant Peter Quint, and that the two deaths might have been linked. But the real tension in the story comes from what can and cannot be said about this mysterious history. Miss Giddens is forbidden from mentioning the tragic Miss Jessel to either of the children — supposedly because it might upset them too much — but, after witnessing two ghostly figures, one of a wicked-looking young man and the other of a mournful young woman, Miss Giddens starts to suspect that Jessel and Quint are present in a way the dead shouldn’t be — and, what’s more, that they’re still in touch with the children.
The real menace in the story is not in the existence of the ghosts, nor in the influence these “horrors” might have on the minds of the supposed innocents. The film becomes truly disturbing once we see how obsessed Miss Giddens becomes with getting the children to confess to seeing, and conversing with, their deceased former governess and her cruel lover. As she can’t mention the names of Quint or Jessel, the whole thing becomes a tortuous psychological game in which Miss Giddens, ever more insistently neurotic and entrenched in her belief, persecutes the children over what, the viewer knows, could well be nothing but hallucination on her part.
This is how it should work, anyway. To my mind Deborah Kerr doesn’t play Miss Giddens with anything like the subtlety or ambiguity required. Perhaps it’s just down to how the film has dated — the governess’ stilted upper-class accent (and the chirpy gosh-oh-golliness of the kids’ dialogue) masks any possible subtlety of emotion, and in the main the music seems to put forward the idea that this is a period melodrama rather than a spooky story.
But one way in which the film hasn’t dated — in fact, what seems to jolt it right into the 21st century, alongside the surreal suggestiveness of Ringu‘s haunted videotape — is in Miss Jessel’s ghostly appearances, which are so staunchly under-sensationalised, and often so brief and matter-of-fact, that they have an effect like a cold brick between the eyes. (The music stops dead each time, too, which helps.)
Take this example, which may be the best in the film. Miss Giddens and her young charge Flora are sitting by a lake. Flora is humming a tune which, we come to learn, is associated with the departed Miss Jessel, but doesn’t answer when quizzed about it. Miss Giddens starts to look disturbed. (The ghosts always appear after we have first focused on Miss Giddens’ look of growing horror. She always sees them before we do.)
Abruptly we see it: Miss Jessel, an out-of-focus, slumped figure in black, standing, quite bizarrely, among the reeds in the middle of the lake, just staring at us, not moving.
Then she’s gone.
It’s the almost surreal details which make it work, for me. The fact that Miss Jessel’s ghost is standing in the middle of a lake. The fact she’s not in any sort of frightening pose, but seems almost bored or tired. The fact she’s in broad daylight. Her being slightly out of focus and off-centre underplays the whole scene wonderfully, as if even the cameraman can’t see her, only we can, and that not too well. She’s beyond the clear, sharp grasp of the rational mind, and staring right into you out of some… other place.