In 1957 John Wyndham published The Midwich Cuckoos, a science-fiction thriller situated a little closer to home than the sepulchral castles and grisly laboratories of Hammer Horrors that had been prowling Britain’s bad dreams. One sleepy day in the fictional village of Midwich, Winshire – ‘almost notoriously, a place where things did not happen’ – every inhabitant suddenly and inexplicably falls into a deep state of unconsciousness. Suspecting a gas attack, the military declare a five mile exclusion zone to cordon off the village from the rest of the country.
Then, as abruptly as the event began, all effects suddenly wear off. The strangeness persists residually: some months later all the village women of child-bearing age are discovered to be pregnant. Apparently a result of unexplained xenogenesis during the ‘day out’ the women all duly give birth on the same day, and to progeny that share strong resemblance to each other and owe none to their supposed biological parents. Golden-haired and wide-eyed, the offspring are the very picture of English rose cherubim, save for their accelerated rate of maturation, penchant for telepathically-enacted sadism and inability to love.
British Intelligence discovers that the odd happenings at Midwich were not an isolated case. The fantasy pauses to muse on how an alien infraction would be dealt with around the world; worryingly a litter of children born in Siberia were fast-tracked through state education before the Soviet government, realising its mistake, thought it best to blow up the entire village with nuclear weapons. In England, meanwhile, government dithering forces an enterprising schoolteacher to take matters into his own hands. Psychologically manipulating the children and managing to plant a bomb in their midst, the man heroically kills himself in the line of duty and pastoral normality is restored.
For his 1960 adaptation Village of the Damned, director Wolf Rilla kept much of Wyndham’s story intact but for one unsettling detail. When utilizing mind control the eyes of the children glow a bright white, achieved by printing animated overlays of pale irises directly onto the film. Though it made for a sensational publicity campaign (‘Beware the Stare that will Paralyze the Will of the World!’) the effect heightened the horror for American audiences only; British censors banned the augmentation of the children’s eyes for being too horrific.
Children whose tender eyes had ‘seen too much’ was a peculiarly prevalent trope in British thrillers of the early sixties. Rilla’s insidious coven of children spoke and behaved well beyond their years; platinum-blonde manifestations of worries about displaced or accelerated maturation. Children of questionable parentage could go very wrong indeed. The worst of the bad seeds of Village of the Damned was played by child star Martin Stephens. Audiences couldn’t help but retain memories of his incubus past when Stephens turned up a year later as Miles in Jack Clayton’s gothic masterpiece The Innocents (1961).
In the The Innocents, an adaptation of the Henry James psychological ghost-story The Turn of the Screw (1898), Miles’s short childhood is complicated by adult knowledge, by what he might have seen. This is emphasised throughout the film in the repeating conceit of intruding faces at windows. The Innocents took the British horror genre away from the Hammer films of the mid-1950s, which were drenched in lurid colour, visual excess, graphic sexuality and bloody violence, back to the shadows, suspense and ghostly figures of its Gothic beginnings. Ian Conrich notes how British horror stood out at this time by eschewing the ‘apocalypticism’ of Cold War sci-fi thrillers which tended to place moral order and civic infrastructure at stake, often taking an us-against-them perspective as its point of conceptual departure. British films however presented:
The threat of the supernatural, therefore, [as] more theological than ideological; it is the soul, not the things under the sun, which is endangered. And even British beasts tend to ravish rather than eviscerate, preying on invisible and moral qualities (virginity, sometimes coupled with a nobility of birth – the ‘chosen one’ still in an innocent, even newborn, state) as much as flesh or blood.
Indeed any suggestion of nuclear fallout is confined to Russia, not green-and-pleasant Midwich. And of course the horror of The Innocents is claustrophobically domestic. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is an untried governess who, after swooning at a wealthy bachelor (Michael Redgrave), is dispatched to the sprawling estate of Bly to look after his nephew and niece, for whom the man has ‘no room, mentally or emotionally’. His only wish is to remain untroubled by any matter regarding Bly, and on setting sight on the picturesque manor Miss Giddens is happy to comply.
Instantaneously enchanted with Flora (Pamela Franklin) the governess begins wondering about young Miles; though supposedly away at school, Flora nevertheless assures he will be imminently ‘coming home’. Sure enough, a letter informs that little Miles has been expelled for being an ‘injury to the others’, but when the child arrives Miss Giddens can only assume the school was mistaken. Not only is he the very picture of a rosy schoolboy he is also mature beyond his years, flattering the clearly taken Miss Giddens almost to the point of flirtation: ‘I think you’re too pretty to be a governess.’
Soon though despite their sunny politeness Miss Giddens becomes alarmed by the children’s odd games and secretive nature. Meanwhile noises and visions of two figures confuse and terrify Miss Giddens. The spectres are identified as the former governess Miss Jessel and valet Peter Quint, who conducted an indiscreet and violent love affair which ended in tragedy.
Under duress Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins) suggests that the children could have been privy to their brazen escapades. Convinced the children too can see these terrible apparitions, Miss Giddens sets about making them admit their collusion to somehow exorcise their demonic possession. Flora undergoes a nervous breakdown and Miles dramatically dies in the governess’s arms; the identity of the infanticidal force in both instances – whether supernatural or a product of Victorian psychosexual malaise – is, as in James’s story, left ambiguous.
Clayton clearly understood the need to retain the story’s notorious enigma, but one important change involved giving the children a greater dimensionality. James employs a triple-framing device and has the bulk of the story told in the temporally-distanced first person narrative of the unnamed governess, the resultant unreliability a necessity in casting doubt on the veracity of the events. All equivocation regards the source of the corrupting ‘adult knowledge’; vitally the children exist as essentially pure.
Typically to James’ narrational speciousness this is established subtly, here in the suggestion of governess’s own family dysfunction. The youngest daughter of a widowered country parson, she competed with many sisters for her father’s affection, complicated by what she cryptically terms her father’s ‘eccentric nature’. Transferring onto Miles her obsequious infatuation with her employer, the boy’s essential probity remains assumed whereas Flora, a rival for Miles’s attention, gradually becomes repugnant: ‘Her incomparable childish beauty had suddenly failed, had quite vanished…she had turned common and almost ugly.’ This strongly suggests that Flora is unfairly demonised.
Though Clayton maintains a narrative bias towards the governess, the film also works to convey Flora as less-than-spotless, even before Miss Giddens has any suspicion of strange goings-on and occasionally when the character cannot ‘see’ Flora. For example Flora initially appears upside-down on the reflection of the lake and frequently materialises unbidden and Quint-like at windows. On one striking occasion she looks straight at the camera; in another her face lingers penetratingly across two scenes. It is as if Flora has the power to wriggle out of the governess’s narrational control.
She also betrays her fledgling voyeurism, declaring her wish to sleep in several rooms simultaneously and claiming that Mrs Grose ‘shuts her eyes in the dark’, a bizarre observation that rests unsettlingly on Flora’s capacity to see in the dark. Sleep is certainly a problematic state in the house. Miles’s enjoyment of lying awake at night is a ‘bad habit’ according to the governess, with its attendant associations of juvenile experiments in self-pleasure. When she herself experiences frenzied, delirious sleep, spookily watched by apparitions of the children, her own grappling with deep repression is only too apparent.
In Clayton’s preproduction notes he emphasises the importance of the house in establishing the film’s mood, particularly that it should permit a sense of evil to ‘slowly grow out of the house…grow out of the atmosphere’, and it must be ‘like an enormous old-fashioned rose – but it’s too big – it’s almost overbloomed…’. Clayton’s semantics of growing and development here redouble the theme of accelerated maturation shared with Village of the Damned.
Delightedly playing hide-and-seek, the children are wilfully complicit in the house’s hidden secrets. Flora reveals that Mrs Grose instructs them to pretend they can’t hear unexplained noises, as if the house also infantilises adults into playing games. Miles revels in being the unrivalled king of his house and is fully aware of its mysterious power, asking Miss Giddens if her childhood house was ‘too small for you to have secrets?’. Clayton’s wife described the director’s upbringing in a house similarly full of secrets, of whispers about the identity of his absent father and where his belief in ghosts was cemented.
Figuring the house as container for the ‘overbloomed’ allusively coincides with the notion of the children as ‘over-ripened’ by their adult knowledge. Knowledge, of course, was fatefully bestowed by the asp. Here it is interesting to consider the pattern of visually situating reptiles and insects alongside children whose juvenile state is compromised or in doubt. Winged or scaly creatures do not do well in The Innocents. Flora tries to drown her pet tortoise and is shown enraptured by the sight of a spider eating a butterfly, one of many signifiers of her morbidity.
But the most sensual and disturbing example occurs when Miss Giddens is clipping white roses, accompanied by Flora’s haunting humming. Suddenly the governess glimpses a small statuette of Cupid, its hands holding the amputated arms of another missing figure and a large beetle dangling tongue-like from its mouth. The sound suddenly dissipates and as she looks up at the tower ramparts she spots the sinister figure of Quint for the first time, as if her shock and fascination at the statue prompted the vision. Later after reprimanding Miles for running away just to be ‘bad’, she lets him kiss her, as Clayton stated, ‘as one would with one’s lover’. In the final fateful scene she returns the kiss equally ardently; but finds Miles’s Cupid-lips as cold as his marble facsimile.
To Jungians insects and reptiles are archetypal of the fear of the multitude, while Freud’s notion of ‘displacement’ transfers important feelings onto something seemingly unimportant and superfluous, such as an insect. To children insects may represent the anxiety of being small – it is no coincidence that Alice meets a giant caterpillar in Wonderland – or an allegiance through shared powerlessness. Multiplied eyes behind which there is no conscience makes the insect an unsettling mascot for filmmakers and the voyeuristic gaze, especially considering the close proximity between unleashed forces and erotic impulses. Perhaps what resounded most with a 1961 audience presented with cold-blooded creatures were visions of a teeming, swarming mass.
By the sixties, European society no longer possessed the rigid conservative system of authority that wartime had brought; instead the mid-century was under the supervision of a diasporic, globalised world where feelings of vulnerability and paralysis proliferated. Britain’s age of imperial supremacy was over and world control was being battled out by America and the Soviet Union; acknowledging the seething hordes and their modern concepts of communism and democracy played to fears of moral infection and decay.
With the child of the sixties being the first generation unencumbered by the memory of fascist patriarchal threat, it is no wonder that he was entwined with imagery of disease-associated creatures and seized to answer for the powerlessness and anxiety that correlates with times of depression, collective ennui and national identity crisis.
Unavoidable fate is the ghost that stalks The Innocents; indeed, Clayton intended the framing structure to make the film feel ‘like a fly caught in a spider’s web’. When Deborah Kerr’s tortured voice floats out of the darkness – ‘All I want to do is save the children!’ – what is most haunting is realising her psychic enslavement. She is trapped in a new world without responsible adults, a world run by children who know more than they ever should.
By: Hollie Starling
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