#83: The Innocents

Ghosts, or just paranoia? Either way, it’s a classic gothic horror

june gloom
3 min readMar 31, 2023

This review was originally posted to Twitter on April 3, 2019.

Initial release: 1961
Director: Jack Clayton

Ghost stories are a dime a dozen. Most follow the same basic plot, the same twists. And then there’s this film. Based on Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, this film, much like its source material, is a masterclass in a grim kind of ambiguity.

A young woman gets hired as a governess for the niece and nephew of an uncle who’s too busy being a wealthy socialite in London to care for a pair of kids. At first everything is fine, but as spooky things happen, the governess comes to believe that the estate is haunted and the kids are possessed.

Horror films of the mid-20th century, in those heady days of the post-war period, with the Hollywood studio system in decline and brave filmmakers asking how anything they could make could possibly be more offensive than what happened in the war, was something of a wild west. Amidst a sea of cheesy schlock to comply with a contract, “creature features” to reflect anxieties over the specter of nuclear war, and of course the films of Hammer and American International Pictures, each with their own house styles, The Innocents sets itself apart from much of its brethren by possessing a sharply psychological bent, much of the script being written by none other than Truman Capote to elevate what might be a simple ghost story to something else.

True to its source material, this has strong gothic overtones (creepy happenings at an isolated English manor? Check!) but there’s elements of a more modern sense of horror too, with intensely edited scenes, sound and musical cues way ahead of their time, and unusual framing.

But as sharply edited and composed the film may be, what really sets this movie apart is the ambiguity of it all. The original version of the script treated it as a straightforward ghost movie, but the final film, with its shocking ending, is ambiguous about whether or not the ghosts are real, or if it’s all in the heroine’s head. It leaves the audience guessing as to our heroine’s disposition towards the children. It’s one of those situations where, once the idea gets fixed in your mind, it becomes impossible to unsee that there’s an element of something extremely indecent going on, at least in her head. Of course, there’s lots of interpretations, and all are valid. But I think it’s clear that even if there are ghosts, even if there is something wrong with the kids, that doesn’t change the fact that our governess heroine is totally crackers.

Much like Mother Joan of the Angels (also 1961), this is a creepy slow burn that relies on building suspense, even dread, while doing things that Hollywood wouldn’t even think of for another ten years. It’s a brilliant take on the ghost genre that still feels fresh.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]