Sunday, 26 September 2021

Every Little Thing I Adore About 'The Innocents'...

This post was inspired by (and warmly stolen from) Alex Withrow at the wonderful ‘And So It Begins’. Check out his takes here.

As we’re about to see- from the moment I hit play on The Innocents I knew it would creep up into my heart. Truthfully I’ve failed to really hunt down director Jack Clayton’s other work which is criminal considering this is the finest directed ghost story ever told- and I’d put that above ‘The Shining’ too.

There’s a subtle psyology that elevates Clayton’s tale beyond so many other similar films- but it’s his daring, innovative and fiendishly intoxicating creative risks that take it from top-tier spook to one of the finest films in what might be the cinema’s greatest decade so far.

Opening on ‘O Willow Waly’- sung with this gorgeous, haunted innocence by a young child. The film immediately reaches out and lets you know you aren’t safe even in the dark- and there’s something about the way the song starts before the studio logos and plays on through them. A lot of horror movies today try this kind of sound-based cold open, but its often too loud. The Innocence meets you on the same ground as the silence and dark of a cinema just after the curtains open: Barely above a whisper. And to cut in with all this before we see a logo and not give a fuck about them as we go by just burns this sleepwalk song right into nightmares.

Clayton refusing to release us from the crushing twilight even as birdsong creeps in over Deborah Kerr’s gasping, exhausted prayer as the opening titles crawl through the dark.

Without any spoilers, I’ve often wondered if this brief first scene actually takes place in some guilty fever dream after the end of the story- rather than right at the start.

How long we linger on this voyeuristic shot that tracks Kerr from behind some trees. It’s a cliché, of course- but there’s a conviction in the form: The patience, the ghoulish precision of the movement- even the way the score contrasts breezy strings against low-end tones lurking right at the edge of the mix. There’s so much detail in the craft that using this clichéd technique might as well be purposefully lulling us into a false sense of security…

The crystal clear reflections Clayton and veteran horror cinematographer Freddie Francis (who also lensed ‘The Elephant Man’) highlight whenever they have the chance. It’s not just the insidious implications of spectres beneath the surface- but the psychological labyrinth lurking in The Innocents’ long shadow that help shots like this write something special into the film’s skin.

The delicate venom in Kerr’s performance here, where she sets a quick trap for a maid whose been nothing but welcoming. From the outset The Innocents’ dialogue has been expository, inelegant and very English- very of its time. Telling then, how seamlessly it allows its ‘hero’ to slip into a sinister mood. There’s always more behind the eyes…

Big rooms get bigger in the dark”. After disarming us with its curt introductions, Clayton and co. play the children’s dialogue with this devilish normalcy- no more attention drawn to their chilling little outbursts than by the darker corners of your own mind.

An early taste of the film’s sublime multiple exposure.

The look on Flora’s face while she watches her new governess battle bad dreams. The little eyelight and the shadow masking the other side of her face are just perfect.

The way the diegetic sound drops out just after Flora starts to hum Oh Willow Waly, the same tune that played over the main credits. And the guts on Clayton, to basically just hang on this shot of her humming for so long and then fade through to the next scene. No need for a POV shot of whatever she’s eerily staring off at- the only fear is what we make.

Clayton again hanging in this shot, letting the cavernous darkness of the composition bleed into the characters- with that taunting candle only spreading more shadows. It’s the deep focus, framing the newly introduced Miles right at the back of the shot, and the void hanging agape around him that immediately sell his wickedly polite character.

All the buzzing sounds of the natural world being sucked into an instant silence as Kerr comes away from her flowerpicking. Again, part of the beauty of The Innocents is that it doesn’t fill itself with unnecessary plot threads to bulk out every scene. Often the characters are merely biding their time until the night comes- and even in those mundane moments its horrors are free to strike us. In many ways I feel the film’s age has actually added to its effect because we become so settled in the look, sound and feel of a ‘1960s horror movie’ that we don’t expect its bag of black magick tricks to be so timelessly chilling.

The oblique angling with which Cinematographer Freddie Francis turns this stone stairwell into a Caligari-esque tower.

Miles rolling over, so naturally, and flashing us this piercing piece of lighting. Its allowing for tiny moments like this, however fleeting, that helps make up the fabric of any great film.

Flora forcing her pencil across her desk with a sound that morphs between scrawls and screams, as if everything in this house is bristling with a pain that’s just waiting to tear free.

More of Francis’ sublimely voidlike composition.

It doesn’t jump out, it doesn’t scream, it doesn’t even move. It just stands there across the water and stares- all in broad daylight, and that perfectly oblique focus. One of the cinema’s twilight gems of a scene.

And here I have few words for the film’s crowning achievement: Its chimerical stream of delirious dreams shivering under the second skin of a long lost nightmare. It lasts for little more than a minute- and has never left my mind.

All the more chilling that the ‘ghosts’ of The Innocents always appear as real people, their faces only ever contorted by shadow- and how Clayton and co. so devilishly sever their mortal ties in the sound mix- playing their cackles and weeping in eerie ADR tracks drifting unnaturally over the film’s score. Most every ghost on screen today is rotted, or demonic- but the fear here is that these people, long lost, are just like us- and we'll be seeing them all soon enough...

While this is a horror movie, it’s pretty amazing how much the lighting team got away with here. There are entire sequences where almost the entirety of the frame is black- and every line of light that lingers strikes twice as hard against it.

How distinctively we see the film’s score, or rather the absence of it, weaponised. While the film’s shrill, overwrought string soundtrack veers over the line in some early scenes that could’ve used silence, we see it slip away more and more as the movie goes on. It’s almost as if Clayton recognised the tension-snapping intrusion of classical film scores and chose to lull us into a false sense of security before snapping it away and forcing us to stew in the silence. (I also hate to note that while the occasionally insufferable omnipresence of string quartets lurking behind every fucking frame of some classic cinema irks me, I’d take it any day over the lifeless synthesised drones and lounge garnish garbage thrown [at great effort] over every second of a lot of modern movies, horror or otherwise. Let the bloody things breathe!)

It really can’t be overstated how excellent British legend Deborah Kerr is here, so vulnerably committed to the film’s subtle framing. There’s something in the eyes- the way her voice always strikes a shrill note too high- she’s forever on the razor’s spine of melodrama and yet immediately able to retreat into a kindly, patient husk. Such a dangerous, bravado performance.

The thick shadow that hangs over her shoulder as she leaves this scene.

Everything about the film’s final ten minutes: The jagged, whorling camerawork. The insidious, lethally revealing kiss Kerr plants right on Miles’ lips. The way the dawn chorus, which creeps in so playfully over the cacophony that’s just passed, keeps chirping over the closing credits. Part of what makes The Innocents the greatest ghost story ever told on film is its refusal to reveal itself, leaving its mystery intoxicatingly unresolvable. For all we know every shadowy figure wandering the wings is just a figment of these people’s cracked imagination- a projection of personal trauma they’re mortified to reach out and face. We never know who the real evil lies with, and in a world where films often painfully spell these things out I’m sure that will be frustrating to some viewers. There’s something out there in the dark space between our dreams, calling to us for an answer- but it only asks because there isn’t one.

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