Any horror movie that calls itself The Innocents is inviting comparisons. That’s the title, after all, of a true classic: Jack Clayton’s elegant 1961 haunted-house psychodrama, in which Deborah Kerr shuddered and quaked with a superstitious terror that may actually have been a coded expression of her own perverse desires. The film haunts the marshy fields of its genre, its influence enduring in every pale aristocratic heroine petrified by the turning of a screw, every creepily proper child running wild through an old dark house, every lonely spirit standing ominously silent in the middle distance.
Written and directed by Eskil Vogt, who scored an Oscar nomination earlier this year for The Worst Person in the World, this new Innocents is not, in any official capacity, a remake. There’s more Stan Lee than Henry James in its portrait of grade-school kids acquiring spooky powers during a long, lazy Norwegian summer. But one can still see the phantom impression of Clayton’s movie, unnerving more than half a century after release, in the way Vogt pulls back and back, placing a menacing lone figure against a canvas of negative space. The films are, at the very least, distant relatives. The new one is much less effective, though.
The setting is a modern apartment complex, not a sprawling Gothic manor. Scandinavian moppet Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) has moved here with her family, including older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), whose regressive autism has taken her capacity for speech. No jumpy governess looks after the kids. Adult supervision barely seems to factor into their carefree afternoons. Vogt, in fact, rarely breaks from an adolescent perspective.
The girls’ unfazed curiosity colors most moments — including the scene where new playmate Ben (Sam Ashraf) demonstrates that he can move objects with his mind, manipulating them like a young Jedi. It’s not the only ability mysteriously conferred by the environment. Soon, the kids, including sensitive neighbor/companion Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), are sending each other mental messages, playing mind-reading games to pass the time. The Innocents never bothers to explain the source of these powers. To do so would be to answer a question its pint-sized characters don’t think to ask.
Vogt has told a supernatural coming-of-age story before. He co-wrote, with frequent collaborator Joachim Trier, the campus Carrie riff Thelma, about a sheltered college kid whose burgeoning paranormal abilities were really a manifestation of her pent-up desires and resentments. (It was, like Clayton’s The Innocents, a repression allegory.) Here, the emotional spectrum is much narrower, because Vogt is following characters whose minds are still very much developing and whose relationships have a primal simplicity. It’s the blunt feelings of childhood — joy, fear, anger, jealousy — given a scary new outlet.
The horror of this horror movie is the underlying anxiety of all bad-seed thrillers: A nagging concern that the kids aren’t all right. Ben, who becomes the film’s sullen and petulant villain (he’s like young Anakin Skywalker, lost to the dark side decades ahead of schedule), waves red flags often associated with budding serial killers. Early into the movie, he casually murders a cat just to see what it might feel like — a transgression that foreshadows a later, disturbing act of violence in a kitchen. But Ida, too, has flickers of cruelty, evident in her habit of stomping on earthworms or stuffing family members’ shoes with glass. One does not have to squint hard to imagine her among the similarly fair-haired Midwich cuckoos of Village of the Damned. It’s a frightening thought, children granted dangerous power before their empathy has fully formed.
There are moments of finely orchestrated pinprick unease in The Innocents. On a whole, though, it’s straightforward to a fault, with all the intrigue of a cookie-cutter superhero origin story. At a certain point, we really are just watching the good telepathic little squirts facing off against the bad one — which might be less of a problem if Vogt didn’t keep defaulting to the same basic visual scenario of two kids staring intently at each other from opposite sides of an open space, the camera sluggishly zooming in to mirror their warring psychic forces. The Kubrickian dread-building devices lose their power through repetition.
What this Innocents most crucially lacks is what Clayton’s had in spades: The psychological (and psychosexual) subtext wailing beneath all the impeccably restrained ghost-story trappings. Decades later, the clammy appeal of that film has scarcely wavered; you can still get sucked into its fever dream of sweaty hysteria. The thrills here are all right on the surface, and minor at that. Vogt has made an enfant terrible thriller that’s too, well, innocent to really shake us to our cores. Maybe it’s unfair, using a genre milestone to bludgeon a modest ancestor from the same family tree of scary-kid cinema. But again, comparisons were inevitable, and inevitably unflattering. They could have called this one anything else.