The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton; Cinematographer: Freddie Francis)
There are two layers of genre filmmaking at the surface of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, each pushing at the seams of the other, testing the other’s boundaries and conventions. The first layer is horror, a gothic horror, in which spirits clatter and clang about empty hallways and disappear into locked rooms. The second genre is erotica, not the heady Freudian conflict that serves as the film’s meat and potatoes, but classic, bodice-ripping erotica of the repressed virgin variety. In this, The Innocents has total control over its protagonist, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr, hamming it up something wicked). The horror turns Giddens’ mind against her body, and the erotica turns the potential of her body against her mind.
The tension of each genre rests in the unrelenting potential for attack, and the willingness of the protagonist to give herself up to her attacker. The imagery of the bodice-ripper is disturbingly violent, suggesting rape and ravishment fantasies stemming from both Victorian suffocation of the garment in question and the askew sexual politics of a male-run publishing industry. The Innocents’ juxtaposition of sex and death (of innocence), though pedestrian even for horror films of the time, is given clout through its coincidence with the swelling 1960s Feminist movement, a tension all its own, that asked “when the release comes, who will give in to whom?” Were men afraid there would be a total loss of power, or, perhaps more horrifying to them, did they secretly lust for it?
The film’s most famous moments, two sensual kisses between Giddens and her young, male ward, Miles (Martin Stephens), the second, a sort of post-mortem tribute to Giddens’ sexual awakening, revel openly in their own transgressions. The script, a collaboration of Truman Capote, John Mortimer, and original playwright, William Archibald, is anchored by these kisses, the only displays of sexuality throughout the whole arc, and its screenwriters utilize them to draw a line in the sand for the viewer to cross. Is the kiss a catharsis, delivering Giddens from her societally imposed chastity, or is it a Pandora’s Box of horror, which, once opened, will spiral virtue into decadent entropy? If the answer is the former, then Giddens’ anxieties are, in fact, justified, and her assailants are very real, indeed. If the audience is against Giddens, then the kiss is merely a perversion from which to recoil, and Giddens’ is merely imagining her dilemma, hysterical, a term the roots of which lie in the demonization of female sexuality. The cure for hysteria? Physician induced orgasm - a release of unbearable tension.