(The above clip is actually a compilation of clips from The Innocents. The specific scene that this entry refers to starts at approximately 5:32 and runs until 7:04, but don’t let that stop you from watching the whole thing.)
Nowadays, when most people think of horror films, they probably think of films like the Hostel and Saw series, and the rest of the so-called “torture porn” genre. However, that’s an unfortunately very narrow view of the genre, one that identifies a whole host of fine and superlative films with films that arguably represent the genre’s basest aspects.
By modern standards, 1961’s The Innocents is a relatively tame, and even prosaic film. There’s no blood or gore, and whatever sexuality the film might contain is implied at best. Instead, the focus is entirely on creating a palpably eerie atmosphere, and the result is a film that is elegant and classy while still being scary as hell.
Miss Giddens (the lovely Deborah Kerr) has been employed as the new governess on a vast estate. Her two young charges — Miles and Flora — seem like perfect children, if perhaps a little precocious. The children are extremely close, and at first, it seems like the trio will make for a picture perfect household. But a series of events and revelations cause Miss Giddens to become increasingly alarmed at their closeness, fearing that darker forces are at work, but noone else seems to notice how disturbing the childrens’ “perfect” behavior might be.
A fine example of this occurs about halfway through the film, when the children put on a play one night before going to bed. During the play, Miles recites a poem, one that seems less like a childhood nursery rhyme and increasingly like an invocation of something dark and dreadful as it progresses. Although Kerr received top billing, Martin Stephens (who plays young Miles) gives the film’s finest and most gripping performance. Young Miles is surprisingly mature and intense, and he more than holds his own as the young boy and the governess begin to engage in a battle of the wills, moving the film towards some startling and very creepy conclusions.
These days, the concepts of restraint and subtlety seem unthinkable in the horror genre. But The Innocents, like so many other great horror films, is effective because it’s restrained and subtle. Even though there are some surprisingly sexual undercurrents in the film, there’s nothing exploitative or crass about it, and the terror comes through in scenes like the one mentioned above — scenes that are chilling because of great acting, great dialog, and above all else, great atmosphere.