Directed By: Jack Clayton
Starring: Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins
Tag line: "A strange new experience in shock"
Trivia: Kate Bush was inspired by the film to pen the song "The Infant Kiss" which appears on her 1980 album "Never For Ever"
Ghost movies, especially good ones, know how to get under your skin, which is exactly what 1961’s The Innocents does in its opening moments. Before the screen even fades up from black, we hear the sound of children singing, and because it's a horror film, this alone is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention.
Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is the new Governess at the luxurious Bly estate, hired to look after two young siblings: Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), both of whom are courteous and kind. But when she learns that the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), died under mysterious circumstances, Miss Giddens begins to suspect there may be more to the children’s friendly demeanor than they’re letting on. Her fears are confirmed shortly after the appearance of two ghostly figures, who she believes to be the spirits of Miss Jessel and her abusive boyfriend, Quint (Peter Wyngarde), a former caretaker at Bly. But are Flora and Miles really being haunted by ghosts, or is it all a figment of their new caretaker’s active imagination?
If its scares you’re looking for, The Innocents has more than its share. During a game of Hide and Seek with the children, a strange figure passes in front of Miss Giddens, walks up the stairs, and seemingly disappears. But the film’s biggest shock happens soon after, when the frightened Governess spots someone peering in at her through the back door (a very creepy scene). Even more memorable than the supernatural thrills are the kids at the center of it all, portrayed by two of the best child actors I’ve ever seen. Pamela Franklin is good as Flora, going from happy little girl to out-of-control hellion at the drop of a hat, but the real standout is Martin Stephens as Miles, who comes across as a gentle, loving boy, yet occasionally gives Miss Giddens reason to believe his sweet exterior is masking a truly disturbed personality (at one point, Miles hugs Miss Giddens so strongly that she can barely breathe, then refuses to let go). Stephens, who also played the lead kid in Village of the Damned, was clearly a gifted performer, and the fact that he retired from acting at the age of 16 leaves me to wonder what else he might have accomplished had he stayed with it.
Favoring mood over jump scares, The Innocents ranks with The Haunting as not only one of the best ghost movies of the 1960s, but one of the finest ever made.