I’m becoming increasingly bitter towards the Christmas holiday season in my adult years, which is making traditional Christmas Movies borderline intolerable. In an effort to make this mandatory-cheer Hell Month something to look forward to instead of something to dread, my household has shifted into celebrating Yule as a seasonal alternative. So far, this change has mostly amounted to exchanging gifts & eating festive meals around a small, contained fire, but it has drastically shifted what I think of as seasonally appropriate holiday #content. December is all about ghost stories for me now, a Yuletide tradition most popularly reflected in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (and made-for-British-TV horrors that rarely get exported to the US). I have no appetite whatsoever for the hundreds of disposable Christmas-schmaltz romances that auto-populate on Hallmark & Lifetime every year. I’ll always have room in my belly for more spooky ghost stories, though, which is my way of saying I wish it could be Halloween year-round.
To that end, this Yule season felt like as good of a time as any to catch up with one of my biggest ghost-story blind spots: the most beloved movie adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. It’s no surprise that 1961’s The Innocents is the exact impeccable classic that it’s lovingly remembered as. I was initially unsure that I’d be able to fully sink into it, since i was initially comparing it to a recent first-time viewing of the similarly styled The Haunting, but the camera trickery & psychosexual discomforts were distinctly their own thing despite the parallels. The Innocents is cold, eerie, beautiful, brutal. After a half-century of cultural familiarity & exultation, it still cuts sharp against the throat, weaponizing a kind of narrative ambiguity that’s been slowly bled out of modern mainstream horror. The only other film I can recall that perverts the traditional atmospheric scares of Gothic horror with such overt sexual menace is Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body, and even that particular erotic nightmare didn’t dare include young children in its main cast.
The easiest way to highlight The Innocents‘s bravely alienating mood is to contrast it against lesser-loved adaptations of its source material, of which there are dozens to choose from. Take 2020’s The Turning, for instance, which ages up the little-boy protagonist of the story into a teenage Finn Wolfhard and takes a definitive side in the story’s internal debate over whether its ghosts are “real.” There’s something incredibly creepy about a pre-pubescent child hitting on his governess with the sexual drive of a sadistic adult man (possibly due to being possessed by that man’s ghost), hiding behind fake-polite apologies like “What a wicked boy I’ve been.” A teenager hitting on an adult authority figure is also gross & uncomfortable, but it feels more matter-of-course than supernatural. Wolfhard’s casting feels like a deliberate choice to make James’s story more accommodating for today’s simple-morals audience. It also backs The Turning into a corner where it has to make the ghost-possession half of its story more explicit to compensate, saving the question of whether it’s all in the governess’s head for a cheap, last-second twist. Meanwhile, Truman Capote was hired for a script re-write of The Innocents to make its ghost vs. insanity balance even more ambiguous & difficult to pin down.
In all honesty, The Turning isn’t too bad for a modern PG-13 horrorbuster. It just has the misfortune of being contrasted against one of the greatest haunted house movies of all time. It’s also self-sabotaged by one of the sloppiest, most insulting twist endings the genre has seen in a long while (or at least since 2016’s Lights Out). The hilarious thing is that the DVD I borrowed from the library prominently features a fix-it Alternate Ending option on its main menu, and that ending is somehow just as bad as the original. The even more hilarious thing is that the best shot in the entire movie is buried under the end credits, after the gotcha twist has already pissed off everyone in the audience, presumably playing to an empty theater. That shot is of the governess’s hand tracing the illustrative details of the haunted house’s antique wallpaper, set to a heavy industrial drumbeat. It’s the exact kind of eerie, pure-image artistry that The Innocents indulges in feature length. It would be much easier to settle for The Turning‘s cheap-shot jump scares & carefully posed creepy mannequins if I hadn’t already seen The Innocents conveying (a more daringly ambiguous version of) the same story in gorgeous art-photography experiments with double-exposure layering & deep black voids. It’s a shame that the one time The Turning attempts to translate that visual artistry for the 21st Century is in the minutes after it’s already shat the bed.
I’m not covering any new ground here by declaring The Innocents great and The Turning disappointing. These are widely accepted truths. All I can really do here is advocate for more people to think of The Innocents and similar haunted-house stories as Christmas Classics. I’d love to see a cultural shift on this side of the pond where we watch spooky possession stories like this every December instead of stuff like A Christmas Prince VII: Still Princin’.