The Best Horror Movie of 1961: The Innocents

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The Best Horror Movie of 1961: <i>The Innocents</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

Almost any year would probably seem like a bit of a step down after the watershed that was 1960, and that’s pretty much the case for 1961, although it can lay claim to one of cinema’s best pure ghost stories in the form of The Innocents. After the clear #1 for this year, however, the rest of the field is considerably more workmanlike in comparison.

Roger Corman’s Poe cycle continues with the plush but grisly The Pit and the Pendulum, greatly expanding Edgar Allen Poe’s short story source material into a big-budget (for Corman, anyway) Gothic thriller starring a returning Vincent Price and Black Sunday’s Barbara Steele. The film’s drawn-out torture sequences (and the pendulum itself) would be informative on the next generation of Italian horror cinema in particular, where directors such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento would borrow some of its devices, plus quite a bit more blood. As for the Poe films by Corman, they’re all eminently watchable, although they tend to come off with an element of camp in modern viewing that likely wasn’t entirely intended. You might say that where Vincent Price leads, a macabre sense of humor tends to follow.

William Castle, meanwhile, releases two films within one calendar year; unabashed Psycho rip-off Homicidal and Mr. Sardonicus, a film seemingly inspired by the twisted face of Gwynplaine from 1928’s The Man Who Laughs. Per Castle tradition, each was accompanied by a gimmick: Homicidal featured a “fright break,” in which audience members who were too frightened to continue were invited to obtain a full refund, while Mr. Sardonicus featured a hilariously charming “punishment poll” at the end of the film, in which the audience was asked by Castle himself to vote upon mercy or punishment for the villain. Unsurprisingly, only the “punishment” ending was ever actually shot, and Castle takes childlike glee in tabulating the audience’s supposed votes. As he says in its conclusion, “Mr. projectionist, let the sentence be carried out!” Classic stuff.

Also busy in 1961 is Hammer Film Productions, which releases Terence Fisher’s Curse of the Werewolf to complete its first wave of modernization of the classic Universal Monsters, along with the film that Christopher Lee considered Hammer Horror’s finest, mystery-thriller Taste of Fear.

1961 Honorable Mentions: The Pit and the Pendulum, Curse of the Werewolf, Mother Joan of the Angels, Taste of Fear, Homicidal, Mr. Sardonicus, Hercules in the Haunted World

The Film: The Innocents

Director: Jack Clayton

The Innocents is both one of cinema’s greatest gothic ghost stories and one of its preeminent displays of psychological horror, striking a uniquely balanced neutral point between supernatural and psychological interpretations. You can argue with relatively equal ease that the events of the film depict a genuine haunting, or occur entirely within the deeply repressed mind of its central character, and both views are potentially valid. The film leaves such conclusions entirely to the audience’s own discretion, and what we choose likely says a lot about how we view our world.

Scottish actress and perennial Academy Award nominee Deborah Kerr plays the bright-faced, optimistic Miss Giddens, a woman who seems desperate to leave her current life behind, for reasons unknown. We get the sense that she is deeply unfulfilled in some way, perhaps seeing her youth beginning to slip away, and naively believes that a post as a governess, taking care of two young children in the British countryside will afford her the kind of meaning her life has long lacked. And indeed, the children seem quite sweet, and the countryside almost impossibly verdant and splendid, at least at first. Only after getting to know the curiously precocious young ones does Miss Giddens begin to suspect that their lives have been warped by the deaths of their previous governess and her uncouth lover … and that perhaps the spirits of the dead aren’t resting idly.

The sense of mystery surrounding the real-or-imagined nature of that central haunting is aided by the screenplay’s seeming ambivalence toward that question, less an intended state and more a happy coincidence brought on by differing outlooks on the story among the film’s creative leads. Screenwriter William Archibald’s original script was written under the assumption that the ghosts presented in the story were real, while Truman Capote’s rewrites (he took a break in the writing of In Cold Blood to be there) added significantly more psychological and Freudian subtext. Director Jack Clayton, meanwhile, said he operated under the assumption that the apparitions were playing out exclusively in Miss Giddens mind, resulting in an overall presentation that can seem both gauzily dreamlike or coldly defined from scene to scene. At times, one is sure that something not-of-this-world must be going on; a few moments later we’re again given reason to doubt the reliability of our viewpoint character. We teeter on the edge of a breakdown in the very same way that Miss Giddens does, unsure of what to believe.

The Innocents is cold, beautiful and often starkly chilling in its austerity, with nighttime scenes that strand the image of Kerr on tiny islands of brilliant candlelight, set against vast seas of impenetrable blackness in the huge country estate where she and the children reside. Cinematography Freddie Francis captures some instantly iconic, unsettling images, such as the apparition of the previous governess standing motionlessly among a field of reeds, her jet black dress in perfect contrast with the tall grass. Above it all drifts the repeated, ethereal musical theme “O Willow Waly,” sung with mournful intensity by Scottish singer Isla Cameron, immeasurably amplifying the film’s palpable sense of loss and furtive longing.

Featuring outstanding performances from Kerr and especially from a startlingly mature 11-year-old Martin Stephens, who had also starred prominently one year earlier in Village of the Damned, The Innocents is an indispensable masterpiece for fans of classical ghost stories, psychological thrillers and gothic fiction. It deserves to be a must-see on any horror fan’s to-do list.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.