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Film / The Innocents

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"Enter my lord. Come from your prison. Come from your grave, for the moon is arisen. Welcome, my lord."

The Innocents is a 1961 British horror film directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr. It is adapted from Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw.

Miss Giddens (Kerr), a young governess in her first position, is sent to look after two children at a country manor called Bly. At first Miss Giddens loves the house and gets along wonderfully with the two children, but she soon starts to see other people in the house. When she sees a man up close, she describes him to the housekeeper and is informed that the man in question died over a year ago. The man was Peter Quint, the master's valet. Upon learning that Quint was in a torrid relationship with the previous governess Miss Jessel (also deceased), she starts to see her ghost too. Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the two servants are trying to possess the children.


The film is notable for leaving the existence of the ghosts up to debate; like in Henry James's original book, it's never confirmed whether the ghosts are real or a product of Miss Giddens' imagination . It has also been the basis for other horror films such as The Others with Nicole Kidman, and its soundtrack was sampled for the cursed tape in The Ring. Deborah Kerr considered this to be her best performance, calling the film "criminally underrated".


The Innocents provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The estate of Bly, a non-human example. In the book Bly is described as being fairly ugly. In the film it's a gorgeous house full of quirky architectural details and with grounds overflowing with flowers and life.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the original novella, there was no mention of Peter Quint striking Miss Jessel.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Peter Quint was red haired in the book but is dark haired in the film (it's in black and white but Miss Giddens says he has dark hair).
  • Advertised Extra: Peter Wyngarde only appears in brief shots as Quint's ghost. It adds up to only a minute or so of screen time.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Mrs Grose describes Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship to us and it's not entirely clear whether it was straight up abuse, mutually toxic or even some form of BDSM (she mentions seeing Quint hit her and Miss Jessel enjoying it, which has several interpretations).
  • Big Damn Kiss: Miles asks Miss Giddens to kiss him goodnight - and plants one of these on her. Startling the hell out of her. When he dies, she kisses him on the lips as well.
  • Big Fancy House: Bly is full of lavish rooms and long corridors decorated with all sorts of finery.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Flora is a curious example. She's the only character always shown wearing white and, while she may or may not be evil, she is definitely mischievous and she does have a rather dark sense of humour.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: Inverted. The boy who got sent away to school was expelled because he was the one scaring all the students.
  • Body Motifs: Hands. The film opens up with a pair of old, wrinkly hands brought together in prayer. When Miss Giddens discovers the statue of a cherub beneath a large rose bush, viewers can notice that he's holding a pair of disembodied, smaller hands in his own.
  • Brutal Honesty: The uncle bluntly says he has no room in his life for children, nor is he willing to make any.
  • The Casanova: The uncle is said to be this. Miles has elements of it as well.
  • Cerebus Call Back: Flora's pet tortoise Rupert is the subject of some lighthearted moments early on in the film. He appears again near the end where Miles throws him through the greenhouse wall in a fit of rage.
  • Chekhov's Hobby: Miss Giddens tells the Uncle that she does have a very big imagination. This proves essential to the plot, where she may or may not be imagining the children being possessed by ghosts.
  • Children Are Innocent: Flora talks about a time where she felt bad that so many of the rooms in the house were unused and describes Mrs Grose as being "quite startled" when she wished it was possible to sleep in several rooms at once. Oh Flora...
  • The City vs. the Country: The uncle defies this, refusing to move to his country home to look after the children and instead hiring other people to look after them.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Bly is a beautiful country house with gardens that overflow with flowers and sculptures. But of course there are dark shadows everywhere, and the house may be haunted. There are frequent shots of insects emerging from statues or decaying flowers - which was a touch by Truman Capote to show "the skull beneath the skin".
  • Creepy Child: Both of them. Flora has her humming of the song "Willow Waly" to herself and responding to questions she doesn't like with "I don't think I remember". Miles with giving Miss Giddens a long, lingering kiss and being played by Martin Stephens (from Village of the Damned).
  • Creepy Doll: Flora's wax doll, which only appears once it's clear she's not 100% innocent.
  • Dark Reprise: The song "Willow Waly" is a little creepy at the start but gets even worse as it's discovered Miss Jessel used to sing it to Flora.
  • Death of a Child: Miles dies at the end.
  • Destructive Romance: Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.
  • Dies Wide Open:
    • Miles in the final scene.
    • Peter Quint also reportedly died this way. For added creepy factor, Miles was the one that found him.
  • Domestic Abuse: It's left open if Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship was this - Mrs Grose saying she once saw him knock her to the floor.
  • Dream Melody: Miss Giddens, as a result of hearing Flora humming "Willow Waly" at night.
  • Driven to Suicide: Miss Jessel drowned herself in the lake after Quint died.
  • The Film of the Book
  • Flower Motif: White roses with falling petals appear in several key scenes throughout the film to symbolize the corruption of purity. It's also crossed with Animal Motif, as Miss Giddens moves away the branches of a rose bush to discover the statue of a little cherub. At first, she is charmed, but recoils in disgust when a large, ugly insect falls from its mouth...
  • Foreshadowing: "Sometimes waking a child from a bad dream is worse than the nightmare. It's the shock..."
  • Freud Was Right: The filmmakers inserted a few phallic symbols to highlight Miss Giddens's repressed sexuality. Notably the pointed corners on the tower where she first sees Quint, and the candlesticks she's often carrying.
  • Freudian Excuse: Whether or not the children are possessed, it's understandable they aren't the best behaved little people. First of all, they're orphans and can't be any older than eight years old. Secondly their only living relative couldn't care less about them and doesn't bother to take care of them. Third of all, they had to live in a house with an open abusive relationship going on in front of them (where they both looked up to both people). Fourth of all, Miles found Quint dead on the steps and Miss Jessel then killed herself. Fifth of all, Miles gets sent away to school and Flora is pretty much alone in the house with only the servants until Miss Giddens gets there. And if she wasn't messed up before she arrived...
  • Genre Savvy: Miss Giddens, though it is suggested she is merely making the story up on her own.
  • Ghostly Goals: Miss Giddens believes that the two ghosts are trying to possess the children so they can continue their relationship.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Miss Giddens has some splendid crinoline dresses and bustle skirts, with High Class Gloves - possibly a bit too splendid for a modest parson's daughter.
  • Harmful to Minors: Miss Jessel and Quint—on multiple levels.
  • I See Dead People: Present but it's never stated whether Miss Giddens is seeing ghosts or just imagining. Flora and Miles possibly too.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Mrs Grose and Miles do make a big fuss of how pretty Miss Giddens is, though in Miles's case he's probably trying to be flattering to distract her.
  • Ironic Nursery Rhyme: The film opens with Flora singing "Willow Waly" to creepy effect. It's later found out to be a song Miss Jessel sang to her, and Miss Giddens has a dream of the two dancing to it.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Miss Giddens's hair is down for the part of the film where Miles plants a big kiss on her.
  • Light Is Not Good: Flora and Miles appear to be two of the most angelic children around, Flora emphasizing this by wearing white all the time. Whether or not they are being possessed they are extremely manipulative and seem to enjoy terrorising Miss Giddens.
  • The Lost Lenore: Quint was this for Miss Jessel after he died. She eventually couldn't take it and jumped in the lake to join him.
  • Mad Love: Miss Jessel for Quint.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's established early on that Miss Giddens has a big imagination and is used to living in a cramped city house - so there is a chance the ghosts are only her imaginations. She doesn't see Quint's ghost up close until after she's seen his picture in the attic. But there are a couple of incidents that make more sense if there are ghosts in the house.
  • Meaningful Name: The children's ties into the symbolism.
    • Flora is the Latin for 'flower', and Flower Motifs abound in the house. Miss Giddens is often tending to flowers that fall apart or decay, just like how Flora appears angelic but is deeply troubled.
    • Miles is Latin for 'soldier', like Miles Gloriosus. Miles is bold and daring - but it just serves to go with his Troubling Unchildlike Behaviour.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The governess is unnamed in the book but called Miss Giddens in this. Miss Jessel is also given "Mary" as a first name.
  • Ominous Music Box Tune: It's revealed that the music box Flora has was given to her by Miss Jessel, making it a Tragic Keepsake. She plays it and hums the tune at night.
  • The Ophelia: Miss Jessel is portrayed this way, and is said to have completely despaired after Quint was found dead. Like Ophelia, she drowned herself.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Miss Giddens is convinced that getting the children to admit the ghosts are there will get rid of them.
  • Parental Abandonment: The children are orphans and their uncle refuses to be saddled with them.
  • Please Wake Up: Miles did this on discovering the dead Quint.
  • Psychotic Smirk: Both of the children flash these at points.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The film is as ambiguous as possible about whether there are ghosts haunting Bly. Miss Giddens sees and hears other people, but she never sees a ghost up close until she's seen a picture. The children act creepy but that could just be from all the trauma they've suffered. When Miss Giddens tries to get Flora to admit that Miss Jessel's ghost is across the lake, Flora's only response is to scream that she can't see anything. Either she's telling the truth, or she's in denial.
  • Sanity Slippage: The film leaves it open as to whether this is what's happening to Miss Giddens. Flora suffers this after the governess tries to get her to confront Miss Jessel's ghost.
  • Scenery Porn: Several long and lovely shots of the English countryside, as well as the grounds and gardens of the house itself. Miss Giddens loves it so much she gets out of the carriage at the gates and walks the rest of the way to the house.
  • Ship Tease: Some rather odd subtext going on between Miles and Miss Giddens. He asks her to kiss him goodnight and then gives her a rather passionate kiss on the lips. She also kisses him on the lips after he dies.
  • Significant Wardrobe Shift:
    • Miss Giddens wears lots of white and brighter clothes when she first arrives at Bly. As the film goes on, she's shown in black more often. In the final sequence, her dress resembles Miss Jessel's.
    • Miles too subtly changes his wardrobe over the film, in the final scene wearing clothes like those of Quint.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The Uncle, played by Michael Redgrave. He appears for 5 minutes max but is continually discussed by Miss Giddens and Mrs Grose, reflecting the former's infatuation with him. It doesn't help that Miles is said to greatly resemble his Uncle. Also, the Uncle is largely to blame for what happens at the end, because had Miss Giddens been able to consult him, she might not have taken the drastic steps that lead to Flora's breakdown and Miles' death.
  • Spiders Are Scary: One of the earliest signs that Flora is a Creepy Child is when Miss Giddens finds her excitedly watching a spider eat a butterfly.
  • Stepford Smiler: Miles is a bit of a type C.
  • Title Drop: Miss Giddens refers to the children as "the innocents".
  • Troubled, but Cute: Miles is a very young example. He's The Charmer who can flatter any woman. But he was expelled from school for "corrupting" other children, and has a very twisted sense of humour.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Mrs Grose says she saw Quint strike Miss Jessel and knock her to the floor several times.


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