The Horror of The Innocents, and the Forgotten Career of Director Jack Clayton

Photo: 20th Century Fox

Earlier this month, Criterion released a gorgeous new edition of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, a 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw that to this day still ranks among the greatest of horror films. Such an accomplishment cannot be overstated: Horror is one of the most subjective of genres, and thus also among the most susceptible to the vagaries of time and passing fashions. Why The Innocents still retains its ability to terrify us, more than 50 years after its release, is worth exploring, particularly within the context of the tremendously underrated Clayton’s broader career. Indeed, what makes The Innocents so powerful is the very thing that made Clayton’s films so distinctive.

The film sticks to the broad outlines of Henry James’s novella, though it also incorporates elements of a 1950 stage adaptation of the story, also entitled The Innocents. (That play’s writer, William Archibald, shares screenwriting credit on the film with Truman Capote — though it was widely acknowledged that the vast majority of the script belonged to Capote and to an uncredited John Mortimer.) It follows Miss Giddens (played in the film by Deborah Kerr), a governess who is hired to care for a young boy, Miles (Martin Stephens), and a girl, Flora (Pamela Franklin). Confined to a vast, lonely estate, the governess soon starts noticing two spectral figures hovering around the grounds. These may or may not be the ghosts of Miss Jessel, a former governess, and Peter Quint, a temperamental and violent valet, both now dead. The kids say at first that they can’t see the apparitions, but their erratic behavior — bursting into shrieking laughter one minute, pretending to be tormented with fear another — suggests that they may know more than they’re letting on. Are they telling the truth? Is the governess losing her mind?

These are all elements from James’s novella, but The Innocents does push the story in new directions. James’s story subtly implies a grisly attraction between Miles and Miss Giddens; in the film, this attraction becomes more palpable and physical, which lends it a surreal, possessed quality. Clayton takes the literary ambiguity of James’s novel and internalizes it, makes it more about the protagonist’s fragile mental state. The film opens in darkness, with the governess’s hands seemingly in prayer, and her voice on the soundtrack talking about “The children … Most of all, I care about the children,” in a desperate, incantatory whisper. (Spoiler alert: It turns out to be a flash forward.) As such, the whole of The Innocents is marked by Miss Giddens’s neurosis. That Clayton cast Deborah Kerr, then 40 years old, as the governess, who is only 20 in James’s novella, also helps; rather than an impressionable youth, she becomes a person with, potentially, a past — a past that remains something of a mystery.

Like James’s story, The Innocents is more tense than frightening — though it is very, very frightening. (It still contains at least one of the great scares of cinema. I won’t tell you what it is, except to say that, like so many things in this film, it involves a window.) But that tension hits us in a very deep place, because it’s borne of something more sinister than just cinematic trickery and plot manipulation. The film’s agonizing depiction of Miss Giddens’s drift into madness is based not so much in what’s being done to her than in what is within her — her repressed feelings and urges.

James kept us in the dark as to the real nature of Giddens’s visions through his sinewy, dancing prose. Clayton has to do it by trying to turn concrete, exact images into visions of gloomy uncertainty. And so the apparitions come amid rays of bright sunlight, or they lurk menacingly across lakes, or they appear out of the darkness in a window. But they’re not typical movie ghosts, the kind who flash by in a jump scare; they linger and loom. In some senses, The Innocents resembles Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in the way it portrays the increasingly unhinged reality of its protagonist while still trying to preserve the precision of its imagery. (The film’s plot resembles The Shining’s, too, with its expository interview followed by a journey and a slow drift toward madness in an enclosed setting, not to mention its obsession with children’s games; I wouldn’t be surprised if Kubrick referred to it while making his own horror masterpiece.)

The Innocents is, like all of Clayton’s films, impeccably composed, but its imagery becomes more and more unbalanced as it proceeds. We might see a close-up of a statue beside Miss Giddens dominating a shot, or a canted angle that suggests the world is about to be upended. The screen becomes a landscape of the governess’s troubled psyche. According to Neil Sinyard, author of a book on Clayton, the director felt compelled to try and make this claustrophobic story, with its small setting and limited cast of characters, more cinematic. “Perhaps our only chance is through constant change,” he wrote in his notes early on. “Change within the scene itself — of tempo and atmosphere — going from something sinister to laughter, or the other way around. In other words we have at all times to keep the audience guessing — and I don’t mean plot only.” Put another way: That the film’s reality constantly seems to change is a response both to the themes of the story and to the practical needs of a movie experience.

The repression that lies at the heart of The Innocents — and the surprising way that works itself into the style of the film — also puts the lie to the notion that Clayton was merely a talented journeyman, an impersonal maker of tasteful literate adaptations and nothing more. (“[He] represents the last word in academic direction,” Andrew Sarris once wrote, to his eternal discredit.) Because repression is, in many ways, at the heart of all of his films. The Innocents was his second feature, following the success of his Oscar-nominated angry young man drama Room at the Top, a film notable for its portrait of stewing class resentment in the world of British corporate culture — though in that film, the repression bubbled over in more overt, violent ways.

Clayton followed The Innocents up with the masterful 1964 marital drama The Pumpkin Eater, which featured Anne Bancroft, in possibly her greatest performance, as a thrice-married woman whose psyche begins to fray once she finds herself living a luxuriously lonely life with her philandering screenwriter husband. Bancroft’s character — whose only moments of genuine happiness come via flashbacks to her life with a gaggle of kids, back when they lived in a crowded, small happy home — keeps her emotions bottled up and loses touch with the world around her. The fragmented nature of the film’s style was negatively compared to the work of Antonioni and other, more arty and respectable European auteurs at the time. But Clayton balances the stylized dissonance with his own lyricism. The Pumpkin Eater is a chilly film that sometimes bursts through with unironic emotion.  

Next came 1967’s Our Mother’s House, a film I consider to be one of the five or so greatest I’ve ever seen. That one concerns a family of kids who’ve been raised in a strictly religious household by their single, invalid mother. When mother dies, the kids pretend that she’s still alive, out of fear that they’ll be separated. Their dead mother’s domineering, judgmental presence haunts all they do — even after their estranged lout of a father (Dirk Bogarde), who may or may not be their actual father, shows up and turns the house into a hotbed of sin.

Our Mother’s House is a film beloved by many notable filmmakers (including Stephen Spielberg, who reportedly screened it for the cast and crew of The Color Purple), but it didn’t make much of an impact financially — perhaps because of its odd mix of tones, going from surreal comedy to moody horror to gothic allegory. Clayton nevertheless did get to direct the lavish 1974 film of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow — an impeccably realized but quite flawed film that was generally considered a disappointment. (I’ve written about Gatsby’s failure elsewhere.)

Clayton didn’t direct another film for nearly a decade after that, but his return to the screen came via a film that bears some further discussion here: Something Wicked This Way Comes, the Disney-produced 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s story that featured Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark, the sinister owner of a supernatural carnival that blows into an Illinois town in the 1920s and steals people’s souls by granting them their deepest wishes.

Something Wicked This Way Comes was heavily tampered with in postproduction, with lots of new footage and cheap effects added, after Clayton’s original cut was deemed too subtle, serious, and long. But the finished film still retains his personal stamp. For here, too, we have a story about repressed emotions that come to the surface in dramatic ways. The townsfolk are individually confronted with their unspoken desires — the older schoolteacher yearns to return to her beautiful youth, while the one-legged veteran wants to relive his early years as a football hero, etc.

But the story ultimately turns on Charles Halloway (Jason Robards), the town librarian and father to one of the film’s two young heroes. He is an older parent with heart problems, who continues to feel a deep sense of shame at his passivity. The film is suffused with his regrets, and perhaps the reason why the folks at Disney were unhappy with the film was because its balance tips more toward the old man than to the young protagonists. Halloway is the one who has to face Mr. Dark. In what may be the film’s most powerful scene, Dark pulls the pages out of a book as he confronts the old man, each page indicating more years of Halloway’s life that he’s losing. It’s a dramatic, supernatural portrait of life passing us by. Here is the classic man of reflection, someone who has lived among books and watched the world go by, forced to accept his fate and the seeming insignificance of his life, in order to save his son and his entire town. It’s actually something of a rebuke to the notion of carpe diem — suggesting that sometimes sacrifice comes in not seizing the day.

Clayton made two more films after Something Wicked, both of them quite elegant and touching (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Memento Mori) before dying in 1995. It’s a sad fact, though, that his career never quite built back up the head of steam that it had in the late 1950s and ‘60s. Maybe, by that point, his acute portraits of reserved characters didn’t quite resonate with the cinematic excesses of the modern era. But The Innocents remains an unforgettable example of submerged horror — a film that embodies the quiet dread that comes with holding the world at bay. And it’s a perfect introduction into the world of this forgotten master.

The Forgotten Career of Director Jack Clayton