The Innocents (1961)

After establishing himself as one of Britain’s angriest young men with his neorealist drama Room at the Top (1959), director Jack Clayton took a break from modern anxieties to film one of the spookiest psychological horror films ever made. This adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and William Archibald and Truman Capote’s stage version of the novella, never spells out the source of the horror. Is the new governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), really haunted by the spirits of the country manor’s previous servants, or is she just projecting her own repressed sexuality onto the children (the amazing young Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin)? It takes a fine balancing act to juggle the possibilities without letting the audience down, but Clayton does it, with the help of Kerr and cinematographer Freddie Francis. Francis uses the black-and-white CinemaScope image to isolate his characters amidst shadows and half-seen apparitions, often breaking up the space vertically to make them seem caged in. Kerr plays the entire film on the brink of hysteria, in a performance she considered her best screen work.

Dir. Jack Clayton