The Turning seemed headed for doom for a while. Promotion for the horror film starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard was nonexistent. It didn’t screen for critics in many markets around the country, meaning that early reviews were scarce. And this is the doldrums of January—often a dumping month for films, aside from unexpected hits like Bad Boys For Life. But did anyone expect an F CinemaScore for The Turning? That’s pretty dire—and it probably has to do with that ending.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE TURNING
You might already know the basic plot of the movie if you read Ciara’s review of the film for us, or if you’ve read Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the novel upon which the film by director Floria Sigismondi and screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes (twins who have bounced around horror for years, most prominently known for writing The Conjuring) is based. (Fun fact: The Turn of the Screw will be the focus of the next season of Netflix’s Haunting series from Mike Flanagan, and will be called The Haunting of Bly Manor). In The Turn of the Screw, a narrator shares the manuscript of an unnamed, now dead, governess who was responsible for two orphaned siblings, elder Miles and younger Flora. While caring for them in a remote estate, the governess becomes convinced that the woman who previously held her position, Miss Jessel, and the family’s employee Peter Quint had an affair before their deaths. And the governess also becomes convinced that the ghosts she is seeing are communicating with the children, and that it is her duty to protect them from the supernatural—even if the children don’t want to be protected. Her increasing frenzy and confusion props the novel forward, and the story ends, I think, slightly ambiguously. The governess is convinced she saw the ghosts, but she’s dealing with grieving, traumatized children. Can they be trusted? Were Flora and Miles really possessed by the spirits of Miss Jessel and Quint? Or did the governess, so isolated and alone and overwhelmed by responsibility, lose it, and imagine everything about the haunting, and just transfer that onto the children?
The Turn of the Screw was published in 1898, and it’s been adapted many times since then, notably in the film The Innocents, which basically kept the core narrative in place: governess responsible for two kids, ghosts hanging around (that film focuses mostly on Quint’s malevolence), and the governess becomes obsessed with saving the children from their negative influence. The ending is slightly tweaked in a way that suggests, perhaps, that the governess was actually possessed by Miss Jessel—a conclusion that still aligns with the original book’s questions about ghosts, sexuality, and the supernatural. In contrast, The Turning makes it so complicated, in a way that I sort of am intrigued by but mostly not.
In this version, the film is set in the span of a few months spanning late 1993 through early 1994, and opens with two deaths: that of Miss Jessel, who we see trying to flee Fairchild Estate before a mysterious, dark-haired man grabs her, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide; blaring news coverage about his memorial service is in the background while Miss Jessel’s replacement Kate Mandell (Davis) packs for her new position. The specter of death, and of the sensation that you might not recognize who you are, hangs over the film, and is furthered when Kate goes to visit her institutionalized mother Darla (Joely Richardson, also in last week’s new release Color Out of Space). Darla’s hands are black with coal, but she gives Kate a beautiful sketched portrait of herself, all soft greens and blues—before returning to another sketch, overlapping and intersecting circles of black coal. In a brief moment of clarity, Darla was able to beautifully portray her daughter—before falling back into the darkness of her own mind.
Was there a mother in Turn of the Screw? Nope; it’s an invention for the film to basically justify the film’s first ending. Once Kate arrives at the estate, she clashes with the estate’s housekeeper, who calls the children “thoroughbreds,” insists that teenage Miles (Wolfhard) is like royalty, and refuses to let Flora (Brooklynn Prince) leave the house, flatly supporting the children’s claim that the young girl will die if she ventures outside of the estate. (Barbara Marten is actually effectively creepy as Mrs. Grose; with her all-grey outfit, grey hair, and watery blue eyes, she almost looks like she’s in her own black-and-white film.)
Kate is convinced that she’s seeing the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel, and although the children keep pranking her and refuse to be straightforward about what happened to those employees, Kate eventually figures out that Quint was obsessed with Jessel, stalking her, breaking into her room, and taking pictures of her at night, before raping her and drowning her. Kate knows that Quint’s ghost has unfinished business and sees him kill Mrs. Grose before she gathers the children, gets in her car, and despite Flora’s terror, drives through the estate gates and to safety.
Psych! We then pan out to black, total black, and see that Kate and the children haven’t escaped at all—instead, she’s considering a series of all-black sketches that have been mailed to her by her mother. Mrs. Grose, judgmental crone that she is, comments that she hopes whatever Darla is sick with isn’t genetic, but then follows it up with “I guess you can’t escape the inevitable.” So was that entire sequence imagined by Kate? Yes! And we see now that Kate’s increasing mania and desperation are not necessarily shared by the children or by Mrs. Grose, and her insistence that she sees the ghosts of Mrs. Jessel and Quint isn’t received too sympathetically. The movie still shows the ghosts, but now we see them only from Kate’s perspective, and realize that the kids might not be haunted—they might just be assholes!
And so we tumble forward into the realization that Kate was, perhaps, only dreaming this whole time, increasingly unmoored by these bizarre accommodations, and perhaps displaying the same mental illness that her mother has. But the movie itself plays both sides. The second ending of the The Turning focuses on the children mocking their zany nanny (“She’s broken, just like you,” Miles smirks to Kate of a doll she accidentally drops), and in another dream-like sequence, Kate sees perhaps herself in the asylum in which her mother lives. So is Fairchild Estates spooky, but not supernatural? Perhaps! But in the beginning of the film, we see a creepily life-like bust of Miles and Jessa’s grandmother snap its head back into place after Kate moves the figure into another room, and there’s the children’s absolute insistence that Flora will die if she leaves the premises, and the movie suggests there’s another ghost hanging around the estate—not Miss Jessel, but another female figure with ancient-looking hands and pointy nails who caresses and shadows Flora. Is that the great-grandmother, who the movie spends a weird amount of time discussing at first, and then abandons? What’s up with that?
The failing of The Turning isn’t necessarily that Kate is imagining the existence of the ghosts, but that the movie itself doesn’t decide. Is this a movie about maternal responsibility and accompanying hysteria? Is this merely a supernatural story that concentrates its haunting on an individual, rather than a family? Is this about generational trauma, and about the pain we inherit from our parents? The Turning is sort of all of these things and also none of them, and its disparate pieces never click together. Consider that there is a scene from the trailer that doesn’t make it into the film of a gigantic spider crawling out of—or maybe into—Miles’s mouth. Were there elements of the film that supported one of these theories that were removed, hence throwing the entire movie out of balance? There are lingering questions here, like what the hell the movie wants us to believe happened, but no scares that stick with you. And honestly, the inclusion of a new-to-the-story rape scene? You really didn’t have to, The Turning. You really didn’t.
Image sources (in order of posting): Universal, The Turning/YouTube, The Turning/YouTube