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Review: The Innocents (1961)




Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has sparked disputes over years with largely two sides of critics endeavouring to constitute a tenable interpretation of this canonic ghost story. Edmund Wilson, who had recanted his views incessantly, ultimately settled on the proposition that the ghosts in the story are non-existent and merely conjured up by the hyperimaginative, delusional governess. Countering that line of thought is Brad Leithauser, who chooses not to dismiss the probability of supernatural occurrences, but also considers the process of arriving at a definitive conclusion especially problematic when taken into account that the story is recalled by a possibly deranged mind.

But what is James’s stance on this? Inkling can be deduced from the preface to his last ghost story, “The Jolly Corner,” according to which the author expresses his preference for ghosts that are extensions of everyday reality: “… the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy.”

Jack Clayton’s 1961 film adaptation, The Innocents, attests to James’s ideal by meshing the strange and sinister with the normal and easy. Such is, in my opinion, the touchstone of great horror films that effortlessly craft an eerie atmosphere by wheedling the audiences first into that region of seeming familiarity. The effect is stunning if this kind of confidence trick is utilised with the right materials and at the precise moments.

The lighting of the film is especially instrumental in meddling with our perceptions of the strange and the normal. Excessive radiance invades many scenes, insofar as the blazing sun of a warm summer day, or the pearl-like pallor of the children’s faces inspires in us even greater fear than, say, the gloom that encompasses the grand gothic mansion, or the disgruntled, spectral face that materialise from the engulfing darkness. A new source of horror is thus introduced, the sort that resembles that when one’s equivocal conscience is exposed under the light of day, for all to see. A sense of unease and disquietude that resorts to night and darkness as the surest refuge and concealment, since day and light invariably entail more dangers in store.

Quite relentlessly the film prompts reassessing the values of many common virtues. Amongst them is innocence. How many times has one questioned if children’s innocence is only a fragile mask, concealing that knowing precocity that borders on inconceivable wickedness? The governess convinces herself so and attributes the children’s adult-like wiles to the possession of the unmitigated spirits. Readers of James’s classic may posit readily that all is only a projection of the governess’s fear regarding her own sexually repressed mores. The film, however, discounts somewhat such reasoning: two of the most controversial scenes have the boy kiss the governess on the lips with lingering passion, and the girl watch a spider devouring a butterfly with unfeigned nonchalance. Innocence retains only a nominal value.

Both the book and the film close with still many questions unsolved. The major one being: are there ghosts or are there not? It shouldn’t be any wonder if James intended The Turn of the Screw to be a veritable horror story, being himself consumed with the pleasure of telling throughout his life, but such linear reading is complicated by the use of an unreliable narrator. And what makes a narrator unreliable if not his possible skill of deception, his ebullient storytelling that is on the strength of his febrile imagination? Imagination is the fundamental element that runs through The Innocents. At the opening sequence, the twitchy governess, during her interview with the children’s uncle, starts when asked if she has an imagination. In reflection, what an odd question it is when in a job interview!

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