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Criterion Collection: The Innocents | Blu-ray Review

Jack Clayton The Innocents BlurayBeing that director Jack Clayton grew up with the misfortune of having no father figure, he grew up with a deep affinity for the Henry James novella he had read as a child called “The Turn of the Screw,” which features a pair of parentless siblings who endure not only the void left by their parents and their neglectful uncle, but the deaths of those most close to them in their governess Miss Jessel and their uncle’s valet, Peter Quint. Following the Academy attention getting success of his 1959 film Room at the Top, Clayton pursued the rights to “The Turn of the Screw” only to find that 20th Century Fox held them through the acquisition of William Archibald’s stage adaptation of the book, “The Innocents,” which he was happy to have his acquaintance Truman Capote adapt into a proper throwback southern gothic ghost story that subverted genre expectations of the Hammer happy period by painting The Innocents as a strikingly transgressive tale of misappropriated youth and psycho-sexual illusions.

Starring Deborah Kerr in one of her most well regarded performances (second only in my book to that found in Black Narcissus) as a fresh faced governess named Miss Giddens whose rural naivety sees her take complete responsibility of a pair of young siblings whose overly wealthy uncle (played with pompous aristocratic pastiche by Michael Redgrave) wants nothing to do with them. Welcomed into their gorgeous, gothic mansion by the ever present housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), Giddens soon is introduced to Flora (Pamela Franklin in her first on screen appearance), who mysteriously predicts the near future homecoming of her brother Miles (Martin Stephens in an outstandingly maturely mannered performance), who has been expelled from school for unspoken reasons. Both project the air of happy-go-lucky kids, yet these unsettling early occurrences sit uneasily in the back of Miss Giddens’s mind. As she begins to see the spectres of Jessel and Quint looming about the premises and she learns more of the overtly sexual relationship they might have openly shared before their tragic deaths, the children begin to seem less innocent and some how almost sinister in their actions.

What follows is an incredibly balanced guessing game that forces us to question Giddens’s sanity while taking into consideration the very real possibility that the children have somehow been implicated in these hauntings, possessed by the spirits themselves to act out against their increasingly concerned governess. Playing against genre tropes, the spirits are never played for scares, but rather revealed only after seeing the frightened look on Giddens’s face to suggest that these ghostly figures might be a figment of her imagination.

As the mood within the spooky gothic mansion accelerates towards its inevitably unnerving climax, cinematographer Freddie Francis paints the suspense in glorious black and white CinemaScope. Despite the film being a micro cast chamber piece, Fox demanded the film be shot in their signature ultra-wide format, so Francis wisely took advantage of the wide lenses to create grandiose floating camera shots, such as the lengthy scene in which Giddens first enters the mansion, as well as Citizen Kane style deep focus shots that have Kerr’s face inching toward the lens. Regarded as a visual marvel, the film is an astounding bit of photography, yet it’s Capote’s risk taking script and the grade A performances from Kerr and the kids that gives The Innocents its eerie persistence.

Disc Review:

As usual, the Criterion Collection have put together an outstanding release for Clayton’s beloved ghost story. Freddie Francis’s gorgeous CinemaScope imagery has been cleaned and made to sparkle in HD. His black and white imagery is incredibly crisp, possessing great detail in close ups and landscapes. The film relies heavily on it’s moody soundtrack that features the spooky traditional tune “Oh, Willow Waly”, so it’s wonderful to have a clean uncompressed mono track to compliment the haunting images. Moving back to single format releases, the disc comes packaged in Criterion’s signature clear Blu-ray case.

Audio Commentary with film scholar Christopher Frayling
It’s unimaginable that there could be anyone more knowledgeable about this film than Frayling. He knows the story’s history, the script, the sets, iconography – everything, like the back of his hand, and he speaks about it all ever so elegantly and entertainingly. A great listen.

Christopher Frayling Introduction
Here’s Frayling again, this time appearing on screen himself, on location at the Sheffield Park where the film was shot. He gives more background info on the film, and, at length, gives his take on the film’s meanings. 23 min

John Bailey on Freddie Francis
Cinematographer John Bailey speaks about one of his greatest creative inspirations – Freddie Francis. He knows the technical ins-and-outs of how he crafted the visual look of The Innocents, as well as the personal relationships that went on behind the scenes. 19 min

Between Horror, Fear, and Beauty
Taking interviews conducted in 2006, this piece sees editor Jim Clark and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis recounting their experiences in making the film. 14 min

Playing to the drive-inn horror buffs of the time, the trailer calls the tale “a chiller of macabre evil” with plenty of grotesque echo effects layering the crazed voiceover. 3 min

Normally, Criterion includes a fat bound book type of supplement, but this time they’ve opted for a fold out pamphlet type deal, featuring a substantial essay by film critic Maitland McDonagh and the usual technical info on the film’s digital transfer.

Final Thoughts:

The Innocents predates other haunted house mainstays like The Others or even Kubrick’s thematically disparate, yet narratively similar The Shining. It’s an unreputable classic of the genre featuring outstanding performances, stunning cinematography and a ballsy pedophilically tinged script by Truman Capote. If there’s no retro theatrical screenings near by, this crystal clear HD release is a perfect way to relive this gloriously haunting nightmare.

Film: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

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