It is a classic story. A young housekeeper is hired to look after a little girl and her irritatingly mature brother on the remote estate in Bly's mansion; hysteria follows. After some strange visions – a woman at the lake, a man looking up from a tower on the property – the housekeeper convinces herself, if no one else, that the property is haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and another ex-employee, Peter Quint. She comes to believe that children also see ghosts, despite their protests. And what started, she thinks, is a battle for the souls of children.
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, may have been published in 1898, but at its core is an array of terrors and uncertainties that never went out of style. His astute manipulation of truth, illusion and subtext inspired a whole critical and literary discourse based in part on whether these phantasmagoric phenomena were "real" or an invention of the housekeeper's hyperactive imagination. Which means that the meaning of The Turn of the Screw tends to be based on the housekeeper's own belief – an issue that has always revealed both the text and the reader, especially in 2020, when the air is full of requests for believe in women.
The Turning, Floria Sigismondi's new view on this old story, reduces some of that ambiguity and moral tension built in – for better and worse. It stars Mackenzie Davis as the housekeeper, Kate, with Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince appearing (respectively) as Miles and Flora, Kate's accused young men. Let's start by saying this: the cast is strange. Wolfhard – star of two nostalgic mega-hits: Stranger Things and the IT films – has somehow become an avatar of the cool nerds of the 1980s … which probably flatters the nerds who are now culturally dominant, but I won't to discuss. Prince, meanwhile, is the maliciously bubbly and unpredictable young star of The Florida Project 2017. Nor is he an obvious candidate for the scary antics of children who fit into a horror movie.
But their presence, along with that of wonderful Barbara Marten as a serious and frightening housewife, Mrs. Grose, is also one of The Turning's hidden and rare pleasures. Are the kids OK. Its energy is sometimes surprising.
The film's buffet of scares, on the contrary, is basically the opposite: bland, hurried and unsurprising – a shame, given the genre. A misty horror film, set on a lakefront property, has a kind of advantage when it comes to creating a devastating atmosphere. This comparison is fraudulent, but for a master's class on the subject, see Jack Clayton's The Innocents, a 1961 adaptation of the same James novel – only with a script written in Gothic panache by Truman Capote, innovative widescreen tricks by the director of photography Freddie Francis, and the sacred terror of the great Deborah Kerr. (As I said: the comparison is not fair.)
The Turning, with its visible lens displays, awkward digital zoom and slipshod editing, often enters the screen saver territory and suffers from it – comparison or not. The script, written by Chad and Carey W. Hayes, of The Conjuring, does not seem to decide whether to openly pathologize Kate (there is an aggravating and obvious suggestion of inherited mental illness, for example) or, instead, to double the uncertainties that they really do this story, which requires psychological rigor, they mark it.
But not everything is wrong. Somehow, a James novel whose subtext has been debated for more than a century has been rendered with almost no subtext – and it sort of works. The ghosts: guys, they are really ghosts. And the sexual awkwardness implied by James – there's always been something wrong with Miles's familiarity with the housekeeper, and the children's stark denials of seeing ghosts still make you wonder if what really haunts them is tacit trauma – is literalized on here. That's it – not the ghosts in the mirror, but the hints of something unspeakable – that is under your skin. This is what works. I will not spoil the backstory, but part of that material appears in the front: a mannequin whose breasts Miles disfigured with sewing pins; a surprising pair of scenes in which Kate is touched by a ghost and then witnesses – more or less – a sexual attack.
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