Tag Archives: Foreign Films

The Passion of Anna (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lonely little island retreat.

This is an intriguing film that seems quite similar to Roman Polanski’s Cul-De-Sac. Both films have a unique atmosphere and take place in a remote island setting and deal with a turbulent undercurrent that brews just underneath its deceivingly placid exterior.

Here we have Andreas (Max Von Sydow) living a lonely existence on an island retreat. He meets, by chance, Anna (Liv Ullmann) who is still grieving from the death of her first husband. The two form a tenuous relationship that slowly unravels as the dark corners of their personalities are eventually exposed.

In many ways this film has all the right ingredients. It wraps you up in its surreal nature and adds interesting effects. There are some creepy elements including a mad killer running around the island killing and torturing all the animals. Things work at a deliberate pace and leave no clue as to where it is headed. The characters are unpretentious and introspective. They are open about their faults and failures and give good reason as to why they have them. There are also fascinating cutaways to the actors themselves who help explain and interpret their characters motivations, which is a novel idea that gives the viewer a deeper understanding of the characters and adds an extra dimension.

Unfortunately it doesn’t come together and leaves no real emotional impact. There are a few good twists, but you can’t help but feel that it should have gone farther. There a certain scenarios that get touched on, but are never explored. For instance there is Andreas’s relationship with Elis (Erland Josephson).  Andreas has taken a loan out from him, but has also had an affair with his wife. This of course has some potential for fireworks and there is a moment where it begins to sizzle, but it never goes back to it. The same thing can be said for many of the other segments including the identity and reason for the animal killer.

Overall this is an outstanding experimental-like movie. It is not one of director Ingmar Bergman’s best, but it is still richer and more deeply textured than eighty percent of the other movies that are out there. The crisp and revealing dialogue alone makes it worth it and Bergman displays the most realistic perspective on the union of marriage.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: November 10, 1969

Released: 1Hour 41Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD

The Nanny (1965)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kid doesn’t like nanny.

            Bette Davis plays a nanny to an upper-class British family whose oldest son Joey (William Dix) is accused of accidently killing his younger sister. Joey, who is only 10, is sent away to a home for disturbed children. When he returns he accuses the nanny as the one who did the killing and a psychological game of cat-and-mouse ensues.

Davis is sensational. She plays a type of character that she has never done before and the results are fascinating. She is much more subdued and evasive than usual and she falls into the role of the unassuming nanny in a seamless fashion. The different setting works well for her and I commend her tenacity for taking on a project that was not glamorous. She even puts on some thick eyebrows for her part and at times, especially at the beginning, she starts to resemble her most hated rival Joan Crawford.

Dix is amazingly good as the kid and it is a shame that he did only one other picture after this one. I liked the independent nature of the character and he plays off Davis quite well and showed no signs of being intimated by her. Making the adversaries have such extreme age difference and personalities gives the story an interesting edge that helps carry the picture.

The evocative black and white photography helps accentuate the dark-tone. The British setting along with the expected formalities of that culture, particularly that from the father character Bill (James Villers) give the film some distinction.

The first act though goes on way too long. We are given the general premise right up front and then have to spend the whole first hour going through the scenario that Joey doesn’t like his nanny and is suspicious of her again and again until it becomes derivative. When the second act does finally come about it seems too late. The revelation isn’t all that clever or creative and the climactic sequence desperately needed more action and punch. The final result is unsatisfying. The viewer is given an intriguing premise that it can’t sustain to the end ultimately making this a misfire despite the outstanding presence of Davis and some high production values.

There is also the issue of the three-year-old girl who is adorable and an absolute scene stealer and yet right up front you are made aware that she is killed, which makes the proceedings rather depressing. Having to then watch her actual death is disturbing and, for its time period, rather vivid and startling.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: October 27, 1965

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated: NR (Not Rated)

Director: Seth Holt

Studio: Hammer Productions

Available: DVD

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

seance on a wet afternoon

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Psychic is a phoney.

Myra Savage (Kim Stanley) is an emotionally unbalanced woman and failed psychic who comes up with an idea that she hopes will revive her career. The plan is for her husband Billy (Richard Attenborough) to kidnap Amanda Clayton (Judith Donner) who is the young daughter of a rich businessman. They will then place her at a strategic location and hold a public séance at which time Myra will ‘miraculously’ predict her whereabouts. This will then, they hope, make her famous and world renowned, but of course things don’t work out as expected.

This is indeed a unique and unusual film that taps into some rare qualities. First and foremost is the black and white cinematography. Every camera shot and angle has a certain evocative flair that is well captured and vivid. The on-location shots pick up just the right amount of ambiance and lighting with each setting. The music score is great and helps create excellent tension. You also will love the little girl that they kidnap. She is adorable without it being forced. Her matter-of-fact sensibilities are a great contrast to Attenborough and Stanley whose characters are child-like and pathetic.

Yet the film doesn’t completely work. The story is handled in a plodding and methodical way without any twists or surprises. There is very little action, some definite slow spots and the conclusion is limp.

If you watch it for the performances then you will be more intrigued. Stage actress Stanley gives a rare film appearance here. It is easy to see why she took the role even though she was known to dislike doing films. The takes are long and give almost unlimited possibilities in creating a character, which is what all stage actors enjoy. She does well and at times may remind one of another legendary actress Geraldine Page who would have also been perfect for the part. Attenborough proves almost her equal. His expressions of shock and worry are memorable. The interplay between the two is fun especially towards the end when this otherwise passive man stands up to the domineering woman.

Overall there are some unique moments, but it is just not suspenseful enough and results in being only slightly above average.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 5, 1964

Runtime: 1Hour 55Minutes

Rating: NR (Not Rated)

Director: Bryan Forbes

Studio: Artixo Productions

Available: VHS, DVD (Region 1 & 2)

Venom (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kidnappers versus deadly snake.

            Phillip Hopkins (Lance Holcomb) is an 8-year old boy and son of a wealthy couple. When his parents leave for a trip the family’s maid and chauffeur (Susan George, Oliver Reed) conspire to kidnap the boy and hold him for a ransom with the help of a ruthless gunman (Klaus Kinski).  Unbeknownst to any of them the boy has mistakenly acquired a black mamba snake that escapes from his cage. As the culprits try to pull off their crime they become trapped in the house by the deadly reptile that starts to attack them one-by-one.

For starters the cast is one of a kind. Besides the performers listed above the film also has Sarah Miles as a Dr. with a serum to help fight the snake’s poisonous venom. Nicol Williamson appears as the police negotiator and Sterling Hayden, in his last film role, plays the boy’s grandfather.  How anyone could manage to direct a cast with such legendarily huge egos and eccentric personalities seems hard to fathom and probably explains why original director Tobe Hooper left the production after only ten days of shooting and was replaced by Piers Haggard. Supposedly Reed and Kinski were at odds with each other during the entire production and their animosity clearly shows on screen. For the most part the talents of the cast is wasted with a script that is limited and filled with characterizations that allow for no range.

I did like Hayden in the scene where he is forced to go searching for the snake in a darkened room and armed with nothing more than a lamp and a makeshift weapon. George is also fun playing a duplicitous character for a change and I was disappointed that she gets killed off so soon. However, she does make the most of it with a very theatrical death scene. Probably the best performance in the whole film is that of the boy. He has a very sweet, young looking face and the widest most innocent pair of blue eyes you’ll ever see and the kind that most casting directors would kill for. The kid plays the frightened part well and does an effective asthma attack. He hasn’t done much since, but I am sure that if he wrote a book dealing with his experiences on the set and his interactions with that cast that if would most assuredly be a best-seller.

The set-up is good and I found myself riveted to it for the first half-hour. I liked the idea that an actual mamba snake was used. There is a part where the snake is slithering towards the camera and opens its wide, black mouth and hisses straight at the camera, which could be enough to get most viewers to jump out of their seat. Director Haggard uses the novel idea of shooting scenes from the snake’s point-of-view and he does it through a fuzzy and slightly distorted lens to help replicate the snake’s vision. The only problem I had in this area is that the snake is seen slithering throughout the picture inside the home’s venting system, which is shown to be very clean and spotless, which didn’t make sense to me since the home was old making me think that the metal piping would be more corroded and rusted.

Despite the excellent concept the film’s second hour is quite boring. The characters don’t have enough to do and spend most of the time standing around. The interplay between Kinski and Williamson brings no tension. There is one cringe inducing scene where the snake crawls up Reed’s pant leg, but overall the scares are quite sparse. The climatic sequence is too convenient and becomes more of a disappointment then a shock. It is hard to say if the film would have been better if Hooper had stayed on or not. Reportedly none of the footage that he shot is in the final cut. The film is based on a novel by Alan Scholefield, which I suspect is probably more intriguing and after watching this makes me interested in reading it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: January 29, 1982

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R (Mature Theme, Violence, Language) 

Studio: Paramount

Director: Piers Haggard

Available: DVD

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: One is not enough.

This is an oddly structured Brazilian film that became a world-wide hit due to its explicit, edgy storyline.  It details the account of a woman named Dona Flor (Sonia Braga) whose first husband Valdomiro (Jose Wilker), was a bit on the wild side. After gambling away all of their money he dies. She becomes determined not to make the same mistake twice, so she remarries another man who is a doctor (Mauro Mendonca) and a much more responsible mate, but also stiff and boring. Problems ensue when the first husband, who she misses because he was more erotic and exciting in bed, comes back in the form of a ghost who only she can see.

The movie on a whole is well made. The characters are all likable and the theme music, which is played throughout the film, is appealing. The on location shooting is also quite distinctive. It really gives you a genuine, rare flavor of a small Brazil village and the people who inhabit them.

My main complaint with the film is that it takes the entire first hour just too illustrate her marriage with her first husband and the second hour to show her mourning and eventual remarriage. It’s not until the FINAL FIFTEEN MINUTES that the scenario the whole film is based on actually happens. When it does it is lively and funny, but the majority of the movie is surprisingly low key and melodramatic. The highly touted sex scenes are overrated. They are too brief and spread out very thinly.

Braga does well in her star making vehicle. She is able to convey both a simple, sweet nature as well as a sultry, sensual one. She has a pretty face and really does look great naked.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 22, 1976

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bruno Barreto

Studio: Embrafilme

Available: VHS, DVD (Director’s Cut)

Bye Bye Brazil (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Entertainers traveling throughout Brazil.

This movie is a slightly surreal comedy-drama detailing a caravan of five entertainers who travel the Brazilian countryside putting on vaudeville like shows underneath a makeshift tent.  The film works in a vignette style as it analyzes the many scenarios and difficulties that the group encounters as well as making a very strong statement to the poverty and hardships befallen on the townspeople that they meet. In fact if there is one lasting image that the film gives it is that one.

The story is pretty much character driven and the characters are all by and large highly amoral. They reflect the desperation of their audiences, which they quietly hope someday to rise above, but never do.  There are a few fleeting moments where they amazingly and surprisingly decide ‘to do the right thing’, which ends up being the film’s most memorable scenes, but most of the time they are ‘rough around the edges’ and the viewer is forced to appreciate them with all their frailties brightly exposed.

Jose Wilker plays Lorde Cigano who is the leader of the group and a lifelong con-man. He closely resembles character actor Stuart Margolin, who was famous for playing the character of Angel on the classic 70’s series The Rockford Files where he was always trying one amusing scheme after another and the character here works in much the same way. He has a few good lines as well as a funny running gag where he displays obscene toys to attractive woman he meets in order to ‘turn them on’.

Betty Faria plays Salome who does erotic dances during their performances.  She lies and cheats as much as Lorde and is more than willing to fall back to being a prostitute whenever the group is in need of money. Although she does have a few nude scenes she is really not all that attractive, or young, as she was already hitting 40 at the time that the film was made.  However, her worn looking face does help accentuate the hardened lifestyle of the character. Her best scene is when she is ‘servicing’ one of her clients who is a fat, balding middle-aged man who expounds the entire time they are having sex about the many virtues of his wife.

Fabio Junior plays Cico the young man who joins the group because he feels it is a chance to escape the sad existence of a peasant farmer only to find that life on the road can be in many ways just as grueling and thankless. Junior is a famous singer in Brazil and his chiseled, boyish good looks didn’t seem to be a realistic fit for the impoverished farm family that his character came from in the movie.  He shows no concern for his pregnant wife and spends the entire time trying to seduce Salome, which makes him irritating and unlikable.  I did though like the fact that he was the one character who evolved and became introspective at the end.

The character of Daso, which is played by actress Zaira Zambelli and is Fabio’s wife, was a bit frustrating. The film makes it clear that she is aware that Fabio is fooling around with Salome and she doesn’t seem to care. She also excitedly jumps into becoming a prostitute at her husband’s insisting when the group falls on hard times. However, I wanted more explanation, or history given to the character to help understand this, but the story does not supply any.

I was also disappointed with the handling of the Swallow character who performs feats of strength during their productions as well as acting as the group’s driver. Swallow is mute, but easily is the most likable and durable, but he runs away half-way through the picture and never returns. I would have liked the character to have stayed during the entire duration as he helped give balance to the others, or at the very least some detail to his eventual fate.

The film becomes almost a like a Brazilian travelogue as the viewer encounters everything from the small dessert towns, to the exotic rain forests. However, the budget was clearly low and I didn’t feel the cinematography captured the majestic essence of the landscape as much as it could’ve, or as I had expected. The story and situations are not all that unique, or creative, but it stays nicely amiable throughout.  The funniest part of the whole film may actually be the lyrics of the song that is sung at the very end during the closing credits. This is not a great movie, but not a bad one either.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated R

Director: Carlos Diegues

Studio: Carnaval Unifilm

Available: VHS, DVD

Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: The first gay marriage.

Based on the Joe Orton play of the same name, this film deals with a handsome young stranger named Sloane (Peter McEnery) who becomes a lodger at an isolated household in the English countryside. He is on the run from a murder he committed and feels this will be a safe haven due to the only other inhabitants being a quirky old lady name Katherine (Beryl Reid) and her equally quirky father Kemp (Alan Webb).  Katherine, or Kath, takes a sexual interest in Sloane despite their wide age difference, which Sloane doesn’t mind as he uses this to manipulate her. When Kath’s brother Ed (Harry Andrews) arrives and takes an amorous interest in Sloane as well, he does the same thing to him. Then Kemp recognizes Sloane as the killer and Sloane is forced to kill him, which culminates with ironic results.

Playwright Orton was years ahead of his time. His plays always had a dark, sexual, even explicit nature to them and his characters were always perverse and amoral in a darkly hilarious way. It is unfortunate that he was bludgeoned to death in 1967 by his jealous gay lover and his career was cut short. However, this adaptation done by screenwriter Clive Exton seems to miss the mark. The dialogue is endless with very little action. The other adaptation of Orton’s work that was made into a film, Loot, was much more lively and full of a lot of campy, zany humor as well as quick edits and imaginative camerawork. This film is visually dull and all the action is jammed into a cramped, dark house with bland decorations. It never really gets going until the final 15 minutes when you get to see the world’s very first gay marriage performed, but by then it is much too late.

For 1970 this film does seem edgy and even controversial in certain parts. The gay erotic subtext is quite strong especially the way the camera scans Sloane’s tan, half naked body. There is also Ed’s pink Cadillac that he drives around, which I got a real kick out of. I liked the way it squeaked as he drove it and was constantly bouncing up and down.  There is also his very provocative hood ornament of a naked man that the camera hones in on. The best part comes when Ed washes his car and is more focused on the ornament, which he lovingly caresses with his towel, than the rest of the vehicle.

However, 40 years later this stuff seems pretty tame and there are too many segments where nothing happens and is handled too conventionally.  It seemed like director Douglas Hickox really didn’t get, or appreciate the material enough, or interpret it in some interesting way because the final result is nothing more than a filmed stage play. The music that is used is terrible and almost enough to get you to turn off the film. It also gets overused and played over scenes when it isn’t needed and hurts the film’s mood in the process.

The biggest problem with the film may actually be with actress Reid herself. Don’t get me wrong this is a wonderfully unique actress who has done some memorable work. I especially liked her in The Killing of Sister George, and she is quite good here as well. However, I do have two issues. The first is a small one. It involves the fact that the character wears dentures. In one scene Sloane supposedly knocks them out and breaks them, but then Reid turns around and screams and you can see that she still has teeth in her mouth.  The other, much more serious issue is the fact that near the beginning of the film she is seen walking through a cemetery in broad daylight wearing a see through blouse. Now with some woman this can be quite sexy and I certainly wouldn’t complain, but when they are 60 and looking more like 70 this is a bad idea, even for perversely comical purposes as it is here it is still a bad idea. What is even worse is when she turns around and a gust of wind blows up her skirt and you can see her entire bare backside, which might be enough to make some viewers sick.

Now, before anyone accuses me of ageism let me relate an interesting experience that happened to me. Back in 2003 I was home from work and decided to take in a movie. I was living in Chicago at the time and I went to the neighborhood theater to see the interesting French mystery Swimming Pool starring Ludivine Sagnier and Charlotte Rampling.  It was a Tuesday and little did I know that it was senior discount day and the place was packed, literally, with people all looking well over the age of 70. The lady that sat beside me looked to be at least 80 and came in using a walker. The film featured an abundance of nudity from the young and attractive Sagnier, which I thought might shock and offend the seniors, but no one reacted to it and everyone went on enjoying the film. Then, towards the end of the movie, 58 year-old actress Rampling starts to take off her clothes and this indeed elicited a nervous response from the crowd. The lady next to me even said ‘oh dear’. In all fairness Rampling didn’t look all that bad naked, but it still hits home the point that even old people don’t want to see other old people naked.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: July 27, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated R

Director: Douglas Hickox

Studio: Continental Distributing

Available: VHS, DVD (Region 2)

Privilege (1967)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teen idol is pawn.

A British pop singer by the name of Steven Shorter (Paul Jones) becomes a major hit with the young teen audience of the day and his managers realize they have a powerful and influential weapon on their hands.  They assign him to do an ad for apples and soon everyone is eating apples. They then use him as an example to support God and Country by making him sing a rock rendition of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’.  With the help of some high-ranking church leaders they get him to introduce a Nazi type salute to everyone in order for them to show their allegiance.  Steven is aware of how he is being manipulated and is unhappy with it, but can’t seem to find a way out it.

This reminded me a lot of the Fonzi character on the old ‘Happy Days’ TV-show from the 70’s, a character with a rebel image who eventually became benign and unrealistic when the producers tried to turn him into a role model for his young audience. The film’s message is certainly a good one and as pertinent today as ever.   Unfortunately it is done in an extremely heavy-handed way that made this viewer feel like he was being hit over-the-head.

I became a fan of director Peter Watkins after seeing the pseudo-documentary Punishment Park where a group of hippies are thrown into the dessert and forced by the military to play a brutal game of survival.  That film featured some emotionally charged scenes that were amazing and the execution was so flawless that it seemed almost authentic.  This film takes the same documentary approach, but it is not as consistent with it nor as effective.  The result is a weird mishmash between the surreal and allegorical to the dramatic and satirical and it never comes together as a whole. It does contain a few moments of funny humor, but there needed to be more of it and most of it comes in film’s first half. The drama is awkward and at times clumsy. It ended up leaving me alienated with it.

I had equally mixed feelings with the lead character.  He was played by Paul Jones better known as the lead singer to the 60’s group Manfred Mann who did such hits as ‘Do-Wah Diddy’ and ‘Mighty Quinn’.  He certainly had the chiseled, boyish good looks that one would expect from a teen idol and resembled Jim Morrison from The Doors.  However, he seems passive to extreme with no ability to ever stand up for himself.  Although looks are certainly one element, a rock star also needs to have some charisma and this guy had none and I would think the public would quickly see that.  He allows his managers to almost completely dominate him and the constant shots of his pained and unhappy facial expressions become, like everything else in the film, way over-done.  I could never understand why a singer with millions of adoring fans would feel so powerless. I would think he would have a healthy ego and sense of empowerment and if was unhappy with his managers then he would simply fire them, which happens all the time in the music world.

I did think that the camera work and cinematography were excellent and probably has a lot to do with director Watkins background.  The scene at the assembly where there is a giant picture of Steven and then the actual Steven stands in front of it making it look like he is being devoured by his own image was effective symbolism.

The points that the film makes in regards to conformity, those in position of power, and the superficiality of pop idols are all right on target.  I just wished that the narrative and storyline were done in a little more sophisticated way and that the characters were more fleshed out. The works of British director Lindsay Anderson came to mind as I watched this film. A lot of his films had the same types of themes like If, Britannia Hospital, and O Lucky Man. However, those films were more cerebral and layered and the wit was more consistent and biting.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: February 28, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Peter Watkins

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD

Deep End (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He will have her.

This is a moody drama detailing the story of a 15 year old boy named Mike (John Moulder-Brown) who goes to work at a public bath in London.  There he meets an alluring red-headed woman named Sue (Jane Asher).  She begins flirting with him, which causes him to become infatuated with her.  He starts following her around and even tries to scare off her two boyfriends as she is seeing both a man her own age as well as an older, married one.  Sue, who seems to enjoy manipulating all the men in her life, treats it all like it’s a silly game that ultimately ends with tragic results.

One of the things that really helps this film stand-out is the believability of the Mike character.  It was fascinating seeing all the different sides to his personality and I felt each one rang true for a boy his age.  There are times when he seems streetwise and even savvy and then there are other moments when he is immature, irresponsible, and emotionally out-of-control.  Although his obsession with Sue borders on being frightening I did like how he comes up with clever ways to help her like the ingenious way he finds her diamond that fell from her ring and into the snow.  I also liked how he becomes shocked at seeing a semi-nude poster of Sue outside a club, as she works as a stripper part-time, and how he steals it away in order to ‘protect her honor’.

Sue on the other hand seems almost all bad with very little good traits, but still equally believable.  She is mean and catty with everyone, abuses animals, and comes up emotionally hollow at every turn.  However, I could see how a young man of his age could become trapped by her seductive ways and perceived ‘maturity’, which makes the obsession itself as intriguing as their personalities.

Acclaimed writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski seems very much in control here and what buttons to press and when to do it.  I liked the color schemes especially his use of the color red. Having Cat Stevens do the music score gives the soundtrack and nice distinction.  I also liked how he foreshadows the film’s final shot several times during the movie.

I did end up having a few qualms with the film.  I wanted Mike’s initial interactions with Sue to be a little more extended than just the brief flirting that is shown.  The film takes place in buildings that are all old, rundown, and murky, which in some ways is good because it helps reflect the murky personalities of the characters.  Yet I wasn’t sure if this was all intentional or just the result of working on a low budget.  I would have liked a few scenes done against a more appealing background just to allow for  more visual variety.

The ending, especially the final shot, is very provocative and perverse.  It reminded me in a way of Nicholas Roeg’s excellent film Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980). Everything gets played out in such an odd way that it keeps you guessing until the final second as to what happens, which ends up staying with you long after the film is over.

Diana Dors, who was a popular British actress during the 50’s and 60’s and even considered a sex symbol for a time, gets a great cameo bit here that has to be seen to really be appreciated.  She plays a sexually frustrated middle-aged woman who rents a room at the public bath and then tricks Mike into coming into the room with her. She grabs his hair and shakes his head while describing a sexual fantasy that she has going on in her head.  When she is done she throws him back to the floor and says “You can go now, I don’t need you anymore.”

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 1, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R (Sexual Situations, Adult Theme, Brief Nudity)

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Import)

The Innocents (1961)

innocents 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Children frighten their governess.

Legendary British actress Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, the governess hired to care for two children at a sprawling English estate. However, the children are not exactly as they seem. Strange occurrences and behaviors begin to manifest as well as several ghostly sightings, which leads Miss Giddens into believing that the children may actually be possessed.

The film is based on the Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw. I have not read the book, but those that have feel this is a pretty satisfying adaptation. I did like the slow, methodical pacing. It helps to build the tension as well as enhance the mystery. Things are revealed in deliberate layers, which kept me intrigued throughout.

Director Jack Clayton shows a marvelous handle on the material.  The estate that they chose for the setting is perfect and captured well in glorious black and white by famed cinematographer Freddie Francis.  There is a lot of spooky imagery throughout including a creepy nightmare sequence in the middle.  The garden with its hulking, strange statues is used quite effectively especially in the haunting finale.  The music also grabs your attention right from the start with a very eerie song that is played before you see a single image on the screen. The song is similar to the one used in Rosemary’s Baby.  In fact there are several things here that reminded me of that film as well as The Shining.

Kerr was a good choice for the increasingly frightened governess.  I loved that scared expression on her face, which becomes progressively more frequent. Yet she is also effective when the character decides to become proactive by taking matters into her own hands and singlehandedly trying to ‘cure’ the children herself.  This also helps make both the character and the story a more multifaceted because you are never sure if this stuff is really happening or all just inside her head.

What really impressed me the most though was the performances of the two children especially Martin Stephens who plays Miles the young boy. His character shifts through many different moods, playing an innocuous child one minute and then a menacing, volatile one the next. He does each one flawlessly and becomes practically mesmerizing in the process.  Pamela Franklin is also fine in the role of Flora. This was her film debut. Eight years later her career would peak playing her signature role as Maggie Smith’s nemesis in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Another thing that I liked about the children is that they are initially portrayed as being normal and even engaging.  This is unlike other films with a similar theme like Children of the Damned or Children of the Corn where the kids are given creepy features right from the start. Here it works better and is more chilling to the viewer because the children’s dark side is unsuspected.

Unfortunately, despite the film’s impeccable technical quality, I still went away feeling unsatisfied. Part of the problem is that nothing really happens.  The ghosts appear but then do nothing but just stand there, which quickly becomes tiresome. One scene in particular has the camera constantly cutting back to the lady ghost standing across the lake until she starts to look like a mannequin, which I suspect she was.  The buildup is good, but I would have liked more of a payoff.  The ending is much too vague and gives no explanation as to why this was happening, if it was happening, or whatever became of the main character.

I couldn’t help but feel that this story would have worked better as an episode from one of the old horror anthology series like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour or even The Twilight Zone where it could have all been compacted into an hour. A hundred minutes seems like much too long for such little to happen. It is also interesting to note that in 1972 a film came out entitled The Nightcomers starring Marlon Brando that attempts to speculate what happened to the children before the main character of the governess arrives and before James’s original story begins.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1961

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Jack Clayton

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD