There are two schools of thought on the best way to tell a cinematic horror story. The first favours a subtle approach, with an emphasis on suggestion that leaves much to the imagination of the audience. The other delights in the genre's more graphic elements and will never hide what the budget will allow it to show. Allegiance to either camp is easy to understand, but a true horror fan should be prepared to embrace both. After all, can you really imagine an early Cronenberg film working half as well without its body horror effects? Then again, it was the refusal to show a single malevolent spirit that made Robert Wise's 1963 The Haunting such a terrifying experience (if you're looking for confirmation then check out Jan de Bont's horrible effects-laden 1999 remake and watch how that one plays out).
Jack Clayton's 1961 The Innocents, adapted from Henry James' wonderfully titled The Turn of the Screw by a formidable trio that includes Truman Capote and John Mortimer, certainly falls into the 'suggest rather than show' category, and despite the intermittent appearance of what we assume are two ghosts, it's never confirmed whether they really exist or are the product of the central character's obsessive belief. The large old house in which the film is set is something a favourite for suggestive ghost stories, from the early incarnations of The Cat and the Canary and Lewis Allen's 1944 The Uninvited to the aforementioned The Haunting and more recent genre works such as Alejandro Amenábar's 2001 The Others, which, with its two children and a matriarch who is tormented by disturbing mysteries and troubling apparitions, is a direct cinematic descendent of Clayton's film. Such a locational choice is hardly surprising, as the bigger and older and less well lit the location, the more places there are for unspeakable things to hide, tapping neatly into the widely held superstition that buildings with a history are haunted by default.
I could go on, but to do so would be a little redundant, as fellow reviewer Camus has already done the film proud in his review of its 2006 DVD release, and I strongly suggest you check out that article here.
I can do no more that offer a shout of support for every word written there, particularly the film's confidence, intelligence and daring (there is, as Camus suggests, a moment that is morally startling even by modern standards), and for the gorgeous monochrome scope cinematography of Freddie Francis. The story goes that when David Lynch was prepping The Elephant Man, he specifically went looking for a cinematographer with a talent for shooting in scope and black-and-white, and while it's generally thought that Francis' Oscar-winning photography on the 1960 Sons and Lovers (which was directed by fellow cinematographer Jack Cardiff) was the main persuader, but it's hard to believe that his consistently arresting work here was not equally influential.
Like almost all of the genre's best examples, The Innocents is much more than just a great ghost story, to the extent that it may not actually be a ghost story at all. But that's a subject for post-viewing debate, and for the purposes of classification, a cinematic ghost story it remains, one whose fleetingly caught apparitions are as unsettling in sunlight as they are in the darkest corners of the night.
It's been getting on for four years (four years?) since the BFI's DVD release of The Innocents, and the transfer on that disc still shines, particularly when viewed on a system that upscales well to HD. That said, the transfer on this new Blu-ray release moves the picture quality into a different league. For this disc the film was transferred (and I'm quoting from the booklet here) in High Definition and supplied for this release by Twentieth Century Fox. The picture was further restored by the BFI using HD-DVNR and MTI systems, removing dirt, scratches, warps, torn frames or replacing torn or missing frames and improving stability issues.
The result is a feast for the eyes that combines all that was great about the DVD transfer – a rock solid and blemish-free print, pitch-perfect contrast – with a level of detail that leaves even the previous disc standing. Don't be fooled by the first post-credits shot of our leading lady, where sharpness is slightly compromised and grain increased by the chemical process used to produce this dissolve, and instead relish the detail in the sequence that unfolds. This increased sharpness and tonal richness really highlights the attention to detail in the sets and costumes in a way that prompts real appreciation of the work of art director Wilfred Shingleton, costume design team Motley and set dresser Peter James, whose work is as important to the tone of the film as Freddie Francis' cinematography, which as you'd expect looks nothing short of fabulous here. The usual standard bearers of hair and costume detail are impressively crisp, and shadow detail is never sacrificed to retain those all important inky black levels. Grain is visible, but this is film, dammit, and grain is part of its physical make-up and is in no way enhanced by the digital restoration. A superb job.
The PCM mono 2.0 48k 24 bit soundtrack has a slightly narrowed dynamic range typical of films of the period, but is otherwise fine, being clear throughout and having no trace of damage or background hiss.
For the most part the extra features are the same as those on the DVD, so once again I refer you to Camus's detailed DVD review for coverage of their content and quality. The Booklet differs slightly from the one with the DVD in that it includes details for Naples is a Battlefield and an essay on Motley by Catherine Surowiec. There's more on this below.
What has changed is that all of the visual extras have been remastered in HD, the key upgrade being The Bespoke Overcoat, which was transferred in high definition from a 35mm dupe negative, while the audio was sourced from a 35mm combined print, both of which are held at the BFI archive. The increased sharpness is clearly visible despite the film's deliberately dour look, and shadow detail has been preserved without sacrificing black solidity.
The Blu-ray has lost the Image Gallery from the DVD, but there are two extras that are new to this release.
Designed by Motley (14:25)
A detailed look at the film's costume designs by the all female design trio Motley, which is constructed from original design drawings, production stills and clips from the film, and is narrated by design author and researcher Catherine Surowiec. Although presented in somewhat academic fashion, this is a fascinating inclusion that very effectively highlights the importance of costume design to film storytelling and character creation. It also points out that Clayton's film was preceded by Broadway and London stage productions of James' story, and an Emmy award winning 1959 American TV movie directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Ingrid Bergman.
Naples is a Battlefield (13:33)
A 1944 film, made by the Ministry of Information with the RAF and Army Film Units and directed by Jack Clayton, that tells the story of late WW2 Naples, from the devastation caused during Nazi withdrawal to the slow reconstruction of the city and its essential services under Allied supervision. A compelling document in itself, as a propaganda piece it benefits from a typically sober British approach that states everything as pragmatic fact rather than dressing it up in heroic clothing. Transferred in High Definition from a 35mm nitrate finegrain and a 35mm sound master positive from the Imperial War Museum, there is still some dust and the odd scratch or two and there's still some motion instability, but the overall picture quality is little short of astonishing for a documentary film of the period – the contrast is spot on and the level of detail is eye-popping, even outstripping that of some feature films I've seen on Blu-ray of late.
If you have a Blu-ray player and you don't yet own The Innocents on DVD, then this is an absolute must-have, for the film, the transfer and the excellent extras. If you do own the DVD then a lot will depend on your fondness for the film, but if you're a fan then consider the Blu-ray an essential purchase – the transfer is excellent, there are even more bonus features, and everything here has been impressively mastered in high definition. Highly recommended.