(Double Feature is a series of “double length” (400-word) posts where I’ll compare two related pop culture artifacts)
The best scary movies impress themselves upon you. They resurface as you walk down a darkened corridor to your bedroom in the deep of the night, or as your house creaks and shudders in a strong breeze. They linger.
The Innocents lingers; it justifies the description “haunting.” The film, penned in part by Truman Capote and directed by Jack Clayton, takes its staying power from a masterful command of atmosphere and an ambiguous narrative that’s rendered all the more frightening by its opacity. It tells the story of a timid governess who cares for two young children at a secluded, labyrinthine mansion; two children who seem “off” somehow (anticipating the J-horror “creepy kids” trend).
Unlike most modern ghost stories, The Innocents has no interest in cheap jump scares, effective as they may be at getting one to spill their popcorn. Instead, it creates a forbidding tone of trepidation, of wrongness and uses a small number of memorably creepy images to create a disquieting sensation in the viewer. Deep focus is used throughout, and it is astoundingly effective at creating a sense of vulnerability, as you’re aware of every corner of the screen. So when an unexplained figure appears, it is horrifying rather than startling.
The film’s languorous, meticulous photography is worlds away from the Paranormal Activity series, but I think that series’ success has a great deal in common with The Innocents’ careful use of a wide field of focus. Many horror films direct the audience’s attention very carefully, allowing for jump scares where a whole area is denied to them, or use quick cuts and jerky photography to keep the audience on edge. Both The Innocents and the Paranormal Activity films instead present a broad tableau, suffused with shadows, allowing your own imagination to create and sustain an atmosphere of anticipation and dread.
There’s little in common between The Innocents and these films plot-wise, aside from each featuring creepy children. When it comes to cinematic quality, Clayton’s 1961 work is by far the superior film, worthy of being described as a classic. The Paranormal Activity series has its fair share of jump scares, not to mention paper-thin plots, clumsy acting and an over-reliance on clichés. But the confidence of each to let fear grow within the imaginations of their audiences grants them longevity, ensures that they will stay with the audience whenever there’s an unexplained bump in the night.