Release Date(s)1961 (September 23, 2014)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (Criterion - Spine #727)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: B+
The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton and released in 1961, tells the story of a young woman who is given charges in the form of two adorable and playful children on a country estate. As her care for them deepens and her time at the estate goes by, she begins to notice odd things occurring on the property. She begins seeing ghosts and notices that the children are beginning to act differently towards her, leading her to believe that something might be wrong with them.
Shot by director of photography Freddie Francis, The Innocents is one of the most beautiful black and white horror films ever made. It was based upon a stage play version of the novel by Henry James entitled “The Turn of the Screw,” and was also co-scripted by Truman Capote. The film applies a much more atmospheric approach to its story than most ghost stories, depending much more on lighting, score, sound effects, and imagery to achieve the effect of a truly chilling ghost story. It looks and feels distinctly unique from other horror films being made at the time, particularly because of some of the more disturbing details within the story itself.
As far as the story itself is concerned, it never quite fulfills itself, instead leaving you with many questions that are not entirely answerable. However, because of how effectively its told, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t want to get into spoilers here, even for a film as old as this one, because I feel strongly that this is a film that must be experienced and not explained secondhand. It’s a remarkably fresh film, especially with its cold opening of a child singing against a black screen before the opening credits begin, something that almost no film of that period would have even attempted in fear of careless projectionists. And that’s part of the charm of The Innocents. It’s a film that takes some risks, but does so within a more acceptable framework than most other risky films. It’s beautiful, haunting, completely effective, and worthy of any horror fan’s time.
Criterion’s transfer of the film provides us with a very solid and pleasing presentation of a beautiful film. There’s an even and healthy grain structure on display, with an enormous amount of depth and detail. Both black and white levels are quite vigorous and shadow detail is very revealing. Contrast and brightness levels are also very pleasing, and there appears to be next to no film damage left behind, nor are there any signs of artificial improvement. There’s really nothing worthy of complaint at all. The film’s soundtrack, which comes on a lossless English mono track, is much of the same. Dialogue is perfectly audible at all times and both the sound effects and score are well-balanced with it. The score plays a great part in the atmosphere of the film and it is represented well here, as are the film’s sound effects. It’s a soundtrack that fully depends on its own sound mix to achieve its atmosphere, and never does it not manage to do that. A top-notch presentation all around. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
The supplemental section is brief but rewarding. There is an audio commentary, as well as an introduction to the film by film scholar Christopher Frayling; an interview with cinematographer John Bailey about director of photography Freddie Francis; Between Horror, Fear, and Beauty, which is a set of interviews with Freddie Francis, editor Jim Clark, and script supervisor Pamela Mann; the film’s original theatrical trailer; and a fold-out paper insert with an essay about the film by film critic and author Maitland McDonagh. There are some missing extras from previous releases of the film outside of the US that haven’t been utilized here, including a couple of early short films directed by Jack Clayton, as well as some still galleries, but it’s a mostly satisfying set of extra material, overall.
The bottom line on this one is that it’s a definitive release of a masterpiece. The Innocents is a film that, when Halloween rolls around, not many people mention it. It doesn’t have the cheesy appeal of something like House on Haunted Hill, nor does it have the fun atmosphere of a horror comedy such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It’s a genuinely frightening and disturbing film, with enough atmosphere for ten other films, and with Criterion’s excellent treatment of it, it deserves much more habitual viewing.
- Tim Salmons