Thrilling audiences by channeling those old fashioned, more commonplace fears has seen a resurgence in supernatural chillers like the The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity. More often though, horror movies tend to be about outlandish murder and torture. Most notably, "show me the blood!" was the key to the popular Saw and Hostel enterprises, and just this year in The Purge and You're Next.
Let's bring back more of those subtle scares! One way to start would be to check out a movie from 1961, based on Henry James' story, The Turn Of The Screw. It may be missing all the blood and guts we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in our favorite flicks around All Hallows Eve, but sometimes all it takes to send a chill up your spine is an eerie house and the unsettling sounds of a terrified child. In consideration for your new spooky favorite – The Innocents. Beware, after just one viewing, windows at night will become something to avoid.
In fact, the chilling tone is set within the first frame. For 45 seconds, the screen is black and all that can be heard is the haunting voice of a singing child. Slowly, the blackness fades to the closeup of a panic stricken face, the star of this picture in fact, Deborah Kerr, who is quietly praying. It's a simple movie equation that religion + supernatural = terror! (See also: The Exorcist) That's right, only a few minutes into a movie and you may already be leveled with fear, but keep watching.
Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a governess, who, after the dark opening, we find as she happily accepts her first position taking care of children in a country estate. These orphans have been left as the charges to a man more interested in remaining a bachelor, so he requests to be left completely alone and entirely hands off their care. Miss Giddens is unaware that the man's carelessness has unknowingly already caused harm.
All is well traveling out in the wide open country, with a towering mansion off in the distance, but not upon closer inspection. Within minutes of Miss Giddens' arrival in the massive garden surrounding the house, a soft voice calling out a girl’s name can be heard, so quietly both Miss Giddens, who looks perplexed, and the viewers wonder if anything was heard at all.
Quite suddenly, a joyous young girl runs up out of nowhere, who ends up having the same name of the voice we just (thought) we heard. There is no time wasted for the supernatural elements to begin. From the first minute on the property, anyone would want to jump in the screen and make Deborah Kerr run in the opposite direction.
Instead she heads into the massive household that is large enough to hold many secrets, but is bewitching to her, as she grew up under meager circumstances, so, she happily bounces through each of the magnificent rooms. Nothing odd to find here...yet.
Everything remains well until several days later, the girl is joined by her brother who has gotten expelled from his boarding school. It is the first of many mysterious circumstances.
Once the two siblings are joined together, odd events begin to torture Miss Giddens; she see's a woman in black hovering across the lake, a shadowy male figure on top of a bell tower, and a woman restlessly pacing the hallways. Unexplainable events happening around every corner definitely turns a normal game of hide and seek into 10 nerve wracking minutes for both Miss Giddens and the audience watching it unfold.
Kerr, who is most well known for The King and I, is far from her character who dances the night away in Siam. She spends the entire time on screen doing the demanding job of balancing the face of a joyful teacher with that of abject terror - she becomes a governess who is scared of the children she is looking after. More emphasis is put on the latter emotion as the history of a past governess and groundskeeper are revealed. These were two people the children cared for with an extra special affinity.
Those children are terrifying enough, but then there is the entire spooky atmosphere enhanced by the director, Jack Clayton. Dramatic camera angles, quick cuts, and intense close-ups on the actors faces makes the already unearthly story feel even more abstract and unreal.
Filmed in black and white, older scary movies are inherently creepy as it is, just in how that type of film makes shadowed corners seem especially dark. With that element already in place, each scene is constructed to get the audience to react with quick cuts to mysterious figures coming out of those shadows and adding terror to a scene with a toy clown in the attic. You know a story has reeled you in when every single instant in a movie, even a toy, makes you want to hide under the covers.
Besides the wonderful performances by the entire cast and all the creative, mind-bending filming techniques, what really makes this flick a must see, and incredibly memorable, is the ambiguous nature of the story. The additional assumptions that arise from this ambiguity, which will be different based on each person's interpretation, could be (for some) much more frightening than the obvious fear caused by a haunting.
Halloween is next week, so anyone looking for a new movie to add to their spook-fest that will deliver more spine chilling moments than a traditional slasher flick, look no further than The Innocents. Three days later, after seeing it for the first time, and I can still hear the slight scream of a child rattling in my ears.