Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), now on national rerelease, is an elegant, sinister and scalp-prickling ghost story – as scary in its way as Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist. It has to be the most sure-footed screen adaptation of Henry James, taken from his 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, clarifying some of the original's ambiguities and obscurities, but without damaging the story's subtlety. Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a governess hired to look after two children in a country estate: Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). Miss Giddens finds something she describes as "secret, whispery, and indecent": the house is haunted by the souls of Peter Quint, a drunken, disreputable valet, and Miss Jessel, the former governess whom he seduced. Without admitting it, the children can see the ghosts as well; the spectres have become their secret, parasitical friends. Flora's pertly knowing innocence and Miles's insolent adult hauteur show how the children become possessed and corrupted by them. Clayton brilliantly uses slow dissolves to create ghostly superimpositions, and the harmless squeals of bath-time fun, or squeakings of a pencil, suggest uncanny screams. The most disturbing scenes take place in daylight: Quint's appearance in the garden is heralded by the sudden silencing of the birdsong. It's a moment that makes your blood run cold. The whole film does that.
Peter Bradshaw is the Guardian's film critic