The Innocents is the rare psychological horror movie that can be enjoyed afresh each time you see it. It's a tense, elegant rendering of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, the tale of a governess at a secluded country estate who becomes convinced that her two young charges (Pamela Frankln and Martin Stephens) have fallen under the spell of ghosts. The director, Jack Clayton, understands the Jamesian power of suggestion. He etches whole sexual histories in facial shifts and single strokes of dialogue. He also suffuses the material with a palpable creeping terror possible only in the movies. This is one of the few literary adaptations that both intensifies and clarifies the source without simplifying or vulgarizing it.
Clayton and his screenwriters (William Archibald, Truman Capote, and John Mortimer) tell the story from the nanny's perspective, and take their emotional pitch from her fervor and excitability. It's a tribute to the brilliant, inventive black-and-white cinematography of Freddie Francis, and to Deborah Kerr's eloquent tremor of a performance, that when the heroine witnesses the apparitions, they're immediately credible to the audience. The filmmakers, though, never downplay her peculiar mixture of propriety and romanticism, her willingness to be "carried away." And, as the children, Franklin and Stephens embody the kind of precocious, eerie high spirits that could be constructed as "corruption." The governess sights the ghosts at all hours, but the ambiguities reach their fullness in the dark. The whole movie is frighteningly beautiful: a night-blooming flower.
The Innocents screens Wednesday, Oct. 30, at 3:10 and 7:20 p.m. on a double bill with The Haunting (at 5:10 and 9:20 p.m.) at the UC Theater, 2036 University, Berkeley. Both films are in CinemaScope. Call (510)843-6267 for more information.