In Victorian England, the uncle of orphaned niece Flora and nephew Miles hires Miss Giddens as governess to raise the children at his estate with total independence and authority. Soon after her arrival, Miss Giddens comes to believe that the spirits of the former governess Miss Jessel and valet Peter Quint are possessing the children. Miss Giddens decides to help the children to face and exorcise the spirits.
Billy: After watching a good amount of awful movies for the list this year, it was such a breath of fresh air to see the Criterion Collection logo pop up on my screen. I knew going in that this had passed someone’s muster for curation, and when I learned it’s a black and white sixties horror, I had an instant smile on my face. And the fact that it was set in Victorian England? Well, that was the cherry on top. I went in expecting something like The Haunting mixed with a bit of The Others, and I think I got what I came for. The Innocents is extremely reserved in its approach to horror and the supernatural, but it’s still one of the most disturbing films I’ve watched this fall.
Amelia: Billy seems confident that the Criterion Collection can be trusted implicitly, I counter by reminding him, and all you out there that trust Criterion, that Michael Bay’s Armageddon has been in the Criterion Collection. So maybe don’t just blindly follow the spinning C logo when it appears on the screen.
Case in point, I wasn’t a huge fan of The Innocents despite everything pointing me in the right direction: beautiful black and white, a good female lead, and a haunted house in the British countryside. Shit should have been lit, fam! But fam? It wasn’t lit.
Billy: The character of Miles was interesting to me throughout the film, because it’s clear from the beginning that he’s an abusive little shit. It’s shown he had a special relationship with the demonstratively abusive groom Quint. He calls Ms. Giddens pretty rather than answering her questions. He gaslights her into believing the things she’s seen aren’t real. He seems to take no remorse or empathy at all for the pigeon with the broken neck. He becomes a villain that could actually overtake Mrs. Giddens mentally even though he’s a child and she’s a full grown adult. And that’s terrifying.
I found this really disturbing, especially considering the sort of man Miles could grow up to be. In this way, the movie got a reaction from me even without putting a supernatural slant on it. He might be possessed, or he might have just learned this behaviour from someone he looked up to, and Ms. Goddens seems genuinely afraid of either possibility, so much so that she may have killed him in the end sequence.
The fact that the uncle is so removed from their lives, and that the servants in the home seem to turn their backs on anything that isn’t their business, just adds to this. These kids have no one who actually cares about them other than Ms. Giddens. The film opens and closes with her prayer over Miles’ body. We don’t know this at the beginning of the film, but it really hits home when we see her do it at the end. She did care for Miles. She loved him. Did she kill him, or did she free him from the possession of an evil man? It’s vague and we don’t know. Fantastic.
Amelia: I think my biggest problem with the movie is that I didn’t care about these kids, so having the main character’s motivations be centred solely on these children because she just loves the little fuckers so much made me want to roll my eyes more than believe in this haunting. I know there are people that really do love children more than anything else on Earth, but I am not one of them. Far from it. I just can’t be made to care about them. I can come to care for child characters if they’re exceptional (think Stranger Things), but I didn’t care at all about these two British brats. So what if they’re possessed by the dead? Fuck ‘em.
Billy: After the solid core of character drama has been set up, the supernatural can reign supreme. The ghosts that haunt the house, but more importantly haunt the children, are seen throughout the film exclusively through the eyes of Ms. Giddens. Her deteriorating mental state is a staple of horror movie heroines, but you have to love that. Why should we be scared of knowing unless there are consequences? The way that it’s done in the film is great too. It’s really no special effect, just actors standing around with other actors pretending not to see them. And it’s so disturbing! My favourite by far is when Quint comes up to Giddens through the window when she’s hiding behind the curtain. There’s a depraved intimacy to that scene that just gives me chills.
Amelia: My favourite part of this movie was definitely set design and lighting. There was one scene in which a man was pressed up against a window and then stepped slowly backwards into the darkness. The lighting was done so that his eyes would remain lit up the longest and you get a beautiful shot of just shiny grey eyes staring in through the glass. And seeing the female ghost only during the day, lit up by natural sunlight so her solid black dress and emotionless face are clearly seen is great. The creepiness of her isn’t diminished by the sunlight, it’s made worse.
As far as the set design goes, I just love English Manors. There’s an outdoor shot that’s on a balcony? A veranda? I’m not sure what you’d call it here, but it’s covered in so many statues in so many different poses and it’s just freaky. It reminds me of the videogame Haunting Ground, and I loves me some Haunting Ground!
Billy: Eight and a half creepy children out of ten
I really liked how disturbing this movie was. It wasn’t even the kids themselves, but Ms. Giddens’ reaction to them juxtaposed against everyone else ignoring the problem. Miles was a character who had me wildly conflicted, because he was clearly going to grow up to do harm, but the film put him in a place where it might not have been his fault, and Ms. Giddens was constantly trying to save his soul. In the end, when the only way for that to happen was through death, was tragic. It was sad horror, and it weighed on me afterwards.
Amelia: Four and a half creepy children out of ten
I had very high hopes for The Innocents but I was let down for the most part. It was just mostly dull or frustrating because I didn’t care about the kids or what happened to them. It just couldn’t hold my attention like other black and white ghost stories, like the always fabulous and constantly entertaining The Haunting or The House on Haunted Hill. Criterion let me down.