‘Dreadful dreadfulness’

The InnocentsBe prepared to be scared. Really scared. Not jump-out-of-your-seat ‘Jaws’ scared.  Not blood-drenched ‘Carrie’ scared. Not even, I’m-never-getting-into-a-shower-that’s-got-a-plastic-curtain-again ‘Psycho’ scared. Be prepared to be creepily, hauntingly, recurrently scared.

Still with us and not hiding behind the sofa? Then get along to the Courtyard’s two screenings later this month of a BFI-restored copy of the British black and white classic The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton and with matchless cinematography by Freddie Francis.

Based on a minor Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, first published in 1898, this gothic chiller has formed the basis of five other movies, countless European TV productions, a graphic novel and a BBC radio drama, a stage play, a ballet and an opera by Benjamin Britten. “Nothing at all that I know,” observed the author immodestly of his story, “touches it for dreadful dreadfulness”.

Demure, repressed Deborah Kerr plays the young governess Miss Giddens, who is hired by the guardian of his young orphaned wards, Miles and Flora, to go and live with them at Bly, his country estate. The fourth member of this isolated little community is the stolid housekeeper Mrs Grose. But it soon transpires that the quartet is sharing this huge gothic pile with two malevolent supernatural residents.

So why has it taken more than half a century for this cinematic classic to be recognised? At the time of its release in 1961, big colourful wide-screen movies were the public’s preferred entertainment diet. West Side Story swept the board that year, collecting 10 Oscars. The Innocents, with its sparse, hugely-understated storyline, in which the viewer’s imagination has to go into overdrive to solve the riddles and clues, was clearly not to everyone’s taste. The English Heritage-managed Sheffield House in Sussex provided the bulk of the location shots, but its Capability Brown-designed gardens also play a major role, hauntingly brought to the screen through the ‘long focus’ technique which was Freddie Francis’s hallmark.

If further recommendation is needed, no less an authority on great cinema than the director Martin Scorsese has nominated The Innocents as one of the 10 all-time scariest movies.


Together with the screening of Czech director Jan Svankmajer’s 1994 Faust (23 January) and Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (11 February), the two screenings of The Innocents (22 January) form the trilogy of The Courtyard’s ‘Discovering Gothic’ winter film season.

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