I first read The Turn of the Screw when I was ten years old after I learned it was about ghosts, and much of what I loved about the book was what I still love: are there really ghosts or are they figments of troubled people’s imagination? Last year, I saw the original British film adaptation of Henry James’ classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, and was completely spooked by the great performances and the cinematography. I don’t know how I missed the film before, given my obsession with scary movies and my complete worship of Deborah Kerr, who plays the spooked governess. With a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, The Turn of the Screw has fantastic acting, and the performances are plenty scary without any special effects.
Deborah Kerr stars as the Governess, Miss Giddens, who comes to an isolated estate to care for two orphans, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens),
who are just too beautiful and too-too perfect to be believed.
Still, Miss Giddens is happy enough with her lovely charges and with the gorgeous house, despite all its creakity-creaks and spookity-shadows and creepity closed-off rooms. She’s happy with the beautiful gardens and the beautiful lake and the outdoor picnics with the ever-so-beautiful children and… oh, all of it.
Even if she occasionally does think she sees something out of place and inexplicable…
Oh, it’s just her imagination, isn’t it, because she’s happy with the house, the garden, the lake, and she’s so incredibly happy with the sweet, innocent, beautiful, orphan children. Most of all, she’s happy with those sweet children.
Until she begins to be unhappy with them.
Why? Maybe they’re too beautiful. Maybe they’re too perfect. Maybe they’re too mature. Maybe…
Well, it’s bad enough that Miss Giddens thinks the two siblings are keeping secrets from her and lying about it. Even worse when they two of them go off on the grounds by themselves without her permission or knowledge. And it’s really not very proper at all when she says “goodnight” to Miles and he kisses her in a totally inappropriate way.
When Miss Giddens begins to see ghosts, she gets scared. When she begins to suspect that the children know all about the ghosts, who seem to be the ghosts of people that the children actually knew, she gets worried. But when Miss Giddens begins to suspect that the lovely orphan children may, in fact, be possessed by the ghosts’ evil spirits, well, that’s an entirely different story. Miss Giddens feels morally responsible for the children’s welfare, so she simply must do something drastic to protect them from physical, psychological, and spiritual danger.
The film stays close to the source material in never revealing whether or not the children can also see the ghosts, leading us to question the Governess’ sanity as she attempts to free her charges of the evil that she believes possesses them. Are the ghosts merely a figment of her imagination? Are the children possessed? Is Miss Giddens dangerously crazy? You’ll have to decide those for yourself in this scary classic.
If you’ve read the Henry James novella, you’ll really appreciate the film’s subtlety. If you’ve seen the later remake of the same work, The Others, there’s no comparison: both films are great though they are completely different from each other. The Others is one of my top 7 Wonders of the Horror World.
Whatever version of The Innocents you find — dated 1956 or 1961 — make sure you have the black & white film, not the colorized one: the stark cinematography helps create the scares in this completely non-CGI horror classic. The Innocents is available for rent or purchase from Amazon.