The Innocents (1961) dir. Jack Clayton
Do we see ghosts... or don't we? That's the question asked early on in most supernatural horror films. The medium is uniquely suited for this sort of game. In literature we usually feel cheated if the author describes something that later turns out to just be a vision. In theater, the signifiers usually draw too clear a line that tell us which characters see what.
Of course, skilled writers in literature and the theater can get around these problems, as Henry James did in The Turn of the Screw and William Archibald did in his stage adaptation. But the film version of the play takes advantage of editing grammar. When we see a shot of a character's face, we often assume the next shot is of what the character is looking at. It's subjective point-of-view. But it's just as often that we see the camera acting as a third person, "over the shoulder" point-of-view.
The Innocents and ghost stories like it love to play the game of confusing the audience as to which perspective is being used. Is there really a figure through the window? Is there really an eerie melody being hummed across the water? It makes us doubt our own sanity, and our ability to navigate reality.
Usually, this tension is resolved by the end of the film, when the ghosts or demons interact in our world in ways that leave undeniable evidence of their existence. Our protagonist or her friends are murdered or the house gets sucked into a netherwordly wormhole.
But The Innocents refuses to give us an answer. Henry James's story gives us the fear of the unknown - critics have argued for a century over what 'really' happened. This, I've argued, is what separates a scary movie from a truly horrifying one.
The Innocents is #433 on the 2012 edition of the TSPDT 1,000 list I’m blogging through. I’ve now seen 441.