A psychological horror with a twist

The approach to Christmas seems to be a traditional time for ghost stories, for which we probably have to thank Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Since then the concept has widened out to embrace other authors and back in the 1970s the BBC ran with the idea, screening an annual adaptation of stories mainly by M.R. James.

But top of my list for this time of year has to be ‘The Innocents’. Starring Deborah Kerr, the film is the definitive and genuinely unsettling adaptation of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James.

Governess Miss Giddens (Kerr) is engaged by wealthy bachelor Michael Redgrave to look after his nephew and niece at his country house - a secluded Gothic mansion staffed only by a housekeeper and a few servants. The previous governess, Miss Jessel, had died a few months before

At first the new job seems ideal - an idyllic country estate and an charming charge in the shape of Flora. Her precocious brother Miles later returns from boarding school having been expelled because of his bad influence on the other pupils, although he appears to be equally charming.

While the governess gets on with the children, she becomes gradually more disturbed by their behaviour, especially when she discovers that her predecessor and the master’s valet, Peter Quint, had been having an affair that ended in his death and Miss Jessel’s suicide. Both had exerted an unhealthy influence over the children. Concluding that the two spirits have taken over the youngsters in order to continue their relationship, she sets out to free them of their possession.

Shot entirely in black and white, the film achieves a wonderfully claustrophobic and is a bit of a slow burner. You’re never quite sure if Miss Giddens is right in her suspicions or just susceptible to the house’s isolation and has become unhinged herself. A classic of the genre, it’s definitely one for late-night viewing.