Blu-ray Review: THE INNOCENTS; unnerving ghost story that defined a genre

Densely layered with an unrelenting but often poetic eeriness, Jack Clayton's 1961 horror The Innocents is the defining cinematic ghost story. Less concerned about the jump-boo scares of modern day horror's - it's emotion comes from getting under your skin to unnerve you through it's use of evocative imagery and unsettling tone. The whole movie is aimed to make you feel uncomfortable in it's company, to let your imagination run wild with dread whilst feeding you the crumbs of what you need to project your own visions of horror. One might even make a strong argument for it being the the greatest ghost story ever told in literature full stop. I would be a fool to argue against it. A gorgeous Blu-ray transfer of the film streeted in the U.K. yesterday and I'm here to tell you it's an essential 'must-have' purchase for any horror aficionado. Those who have The Others or The Orphanage proudly nestled in their DVD collection should take note that fundamentally, they are both well-made remakes of this superior movie from four decades previous - which lets you less easily off the hook and isn't as obvious or forgiving either to you or it's poor protagonists - The Innocents. Simply put - this new transfer is the clearest and crispest renditioning of the monstrous and haunting visions Henry James so eloquently wrote about in The Turn of the Screw that now in 1080p pack a punch that's even more bruising than ever before. I recommend watching it very late at night and absolutely alone like I did, certainly after 11pm - on the largest screen in your house - and it'll make even the firmest non-believer wince, and squirm before ultimately telling you that if God does exist, he doesn't particularly care for the moniker you have taken. The tale is a simple one and if you are unaware of it's source material, you are bound to have stumbled across a remake or rehash of it at some point in your life. This is the birth of the genre. Based loosely on Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw' -the film is bookended by a woman clasping her hands, praying that all she ever wanted to do was help the children. What follows is a slow-burning psychological drama as we begin to question whether Deborah Kerr's highly-strung but good natured new governess of this Gothic Victorian British countryside mansion is actually going mad and inadvertently harming the children - The Innocents - that she so desperately believes her actions are trying to save. Save from what? - well the terrifying ghosts clawing at the windows (such as Peter Wyngarde, in only a few scenes but imprinting a nightmare hallucination on you that you can't shake off), and staring through the cornfields. Particularly the pale, deathly woman in black, a nightmare projection if there ever was one. As I say, watching this post-midnight in a completely darkened room and she stares right at you. The mystery is that the Governess believes the ghosts are the previous carers of the house who died sometime ago in unusual circumstances and her theory is they have returned from the grave to possess the children. They are easily the most effective visions of a ghost I've ever seen in any motion picture. The anxiety grows with each new scene. Is the Governess believing herself so righteously and without question about her absurd ghost theory that in actual fact she is corrupting those around her? Is she aware of this but carries on her devastating path anyway, or is she the most sympathetic and tragic character in motion-picture history and her implied madness is as shocking to her as the unforgiving finale is to us? Are the ghosts actually real, is the reading a literal one? You tell me... look at the Blu-ray cover above, or the eyes of Kerr below. Is she haunted because of the phantoms, or she is haunted because she realises she is mad? Is she, like our hero in the slightly similar Shutter Island this year - deluding herself and us, an unreliable protagonist? Either way, you can believe what you want to believe and the implications of the movie are still evident come the end but it's a cracking journey to get there. The Innocents revels it's in cryptic ambiguity either through it's double entendre dialogue (often cited as being the Freudian masterstroke addition of writer Truman Capote), the throw-a-way remakes from characters that seem more sinister on repeat viewings, the subtle imagery or things hidden in the shadows or heard in the wind. Revelations aren't hit over your head with a Ben Kingsley chalkboard (hey I loved Shutter Island, so consider that tongue in cheek) but rather measured to grow suggestively in your cerebral senses. This is a movie that brings up more questions than answers, a rich concoction of possibilities. In a way it beat out Lost by nearly half a century, but rather not because there aren't answers to find here - it's just the clues you seek within the film may give you multiple readings.


The ghosts. The clasping hands of Deboarh Kerr praying on the title card. The sound of the Fox fanfare that only appears after 45 seconds post-complete darkness but for the nightmarish song of 'Willow Waly'. The visions of hellish statues in the garden that you swear have a sickening soul that looks straight through you. The decaying roses, the lush gardens. Never has Freddy Francis' stunning black-and-white photography with groundbreaking lightning ever been more stunning. This is a significant upgrade on the BFI DVD transfer of four years ago, though with some grain at points. Extras BFI have really put together an impressive package here, one of the finest Blu-rays I've had the pleasure of watching this year. There's a superb commentary from Professor Christopher Frayling, actually my favourite DVD Commentator (his tracks on the Leone movies are joyous) and it's pretty evident there is no-one else on this planet who knows this movie more throughouly than him. Entertaining, thoughtful and absolutely the benchmark of what a commentary track should be. Frayling, a clear fan of the movie, also gives a 25 minute video introduction to the movie shot at Sheffield Park estate that once again paints a picture of how the film was developed. There's a detailed look at the costumes British designers Motley came up with for the film, two short films from Clayton (one a 30-minute Oscar and BAFTA winning short), a trailer and a nice and passionate essay on the film from The League of Gentlemen's Jeremy Dyson. All in all - this is a proud compliment to The Innocents - the definitive version of the definitive ghost story. It's available now on Blu-ray. All Blu-ray screenshots come from the excellent DVD Beaver resource.

Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.