Based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Innocents is perhaps one of the most frightening movies ever made. Adapted by William Archibald and Truman Capote, the black and white film quickly became one of the lynchpins of the British horror genre. Director Jack Clayton skillfully gave a remarkably realistic feel to a movie that focuses heavily on the supernatural and the nature of ghostly possession and drew extraordinary performances from his cast.
Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, a kindly, unsuspecting governess who takes on the task of caring for the orphaned niece and nephew of a wealthy uncle (Michael Redgrave) who wants nothing to do with them. Shortly after meeting the children, who at first seem good-natured and sweet, Miss Giddens soon realizes that something sinister has taken hold of them. Her suspicions are revealed as correct during a particularly terrifying game of hide and seek when she, hiding behind the curtains near the back door of the house, senses an eerie presence outside the window.Cinematographer Freddie Francis photography’s is frighteningly beautiful here. Keeping the true nature of the horror unseen for as long as possible, he uses shadows of a man’s face (the specter is played by character actor Peter Wyngarde) at the window all the more terrifying. Clayton wisely allows Francis’s camera to linger on Miss Giddens’ horrified expression as she stares into the obscured face of the stranger, trying to deduce his identity. The man leers back at her with only his cold and black eyes clearly visible, and the intensity of this brief encounter sets up the sense of foreboding and terror that informs the remainder of the film. The use of sound—only Miss Giddens’ uneven breathing is heard—also intensifies the experience.
Ultimately, Miss Giddens identifies the murky presence at the window as Peter Quint, the master’s valet who has been dead for over a year, and works frantically to put together the pieces of a bizarre puzzle in a race to save the children from Quint’s malevolence. The haunting visage of Quint lingers with the audience long after the film is over, making The Innocents an all the more terrifying experience.