Saturday, February 08, 2020


Mackenzie Davis in The Turning (2020)

"But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped." --Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

If you fall down the rabbit hole of genre taxonomy,* one of the things you'll discover is how fuzzy and indistinct the borders between genres really are. Nowhere is that more evident than in trying to draw an outline around what constitutes the horror story. If you look too hard at horror as a genre, then it evaporates before your very eyes, with its component parts ordering themselves either as dark fantasy and psychological suspense. Horror, as has been said by sharper horror scholars than I, isn't really a genre at all, but is rather an emotion. An emotion can come from anything. The things that scare and disturb us are protean and idiosyncratic and cannot be contained within the boundaries of a literary genre. It seems to me, though, that there is a horror genre composed of a common pool of archetypes and narrative tropes and that you can't fractionate those generic elements based on whether or not something is supernatural or naturalistic or however you want to order things. The corpus colossum that unites the various lobes of the horror genre is Henry James's The Turn of the Screw with its famously ambiguous unreliable narrator. Is it a supernatural ghost story or a tale of ordinary madness? The story is cryptic on this matter. This is a challenge to later interpreters, particularly to filmmakers. Jack Clayton's The Innocents is more or less successful at straddling this divide, but not every version has the kind of blue-blooded cinematic bona fides that that film has. The latest version in the cinema (as opposed to the one that's coming as a series to Netflix) has no such pedigree. The Turning (2020, directed by Floria Sigismondi) attempts to split the difference. Literally.

Spoilers, I guess.

The story is familiar enough, though transplanted to 1994. Kate, an introverted education grad student takes a job as a governess to an orphaned girl on a rambling Gothic estate in Maine. The little girl, Flora, is sure that she'll leave, just like Miss Jessel, the previous governess, whose fate is one of the film's mysteries. Flora is terrified of leaving the grounds of her estate, convinced that doing so will mean her death. Her parents died in a car accident just outside the gates.  Complicating matters is Miles, Flora's older brother, who has just been expelled from boarding school. Miles is vaguely threatening to Kate. The household is overseen by the formidable Mrs. Grose, who casts a gimlet eye at Kate, and upholds the children's heritage of privilege when Kate attempts to instill commonplace manners into them. The manor house itself holds secrets, too, Flora tells Kate that she never goes into the West wing of the house, and when Kate herself ventures there, she is unsettled by sounds there, and by fleeting visions of two ghostly figures: Miss Jessel and the sinister groundskeeper, Quint. She becomes convinced that the house is haunted and that the ghosts mean the children harm. But is she seeing thing as they are? The children play a cruel trick on her when the toss a dress mannequin into the swimming pool and Kate thinks that Flora is drowning. And Miles cruelty seems descended from Quint, with whom he was close. And Kate is struggling with her own heritage. Her mother is in an asylum, beset by vision that she draws as incomprehensible pieces of art. Things come to a head when Kate is invited to play the "flashlight" game with the children and gets lost in the house, with only the ghosts for company...

Finn Wolfhard, Mackenzie Davis, and Brooklynn Prince in The Turning (2020)

The Turning creeps away for most of its running time in the tradition of most of the Gothic films made this century. It has an autumnal color palette and an agreeably creepy mansion festooned with creepy mannequins and toys. The toys have been used by Flora to create unsettling dioramas. The film benefits from a trio of committed performances from Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, and Brooklynn Prince as Kate, Miles, and Flora. Most of the film is attractively mounted. Its production design is attractive if generic. Davis in particular is given a wide range of emotions to play and she over-layers them all with a brittleness that suits the character. Wolfhard, who is maybe typecast, manages to play sadism and menace in a plausibly deniable way. Brooklynn Prince is a living avatar of the Kuleshov effect. She's as ebullient and chaotic in this film as she was in The Florida Project--it's practically the same performance--but the setting changes everything about it, casting her character as sinister and tragic where in The Florida Project she was an incorrigible free range kid. In this film, she has nowhere to range. Confining her energy to an old dark house changes that energy. Most of this works. The film knows what it's doing with the material. It even has a hint of ambiguity about it. One wonders if Kate's college roommate is real, if her mother is real, if she's in full command of reality. For the most part, it understands what the source material is up to.

Then, ten minutes before the end of the film, the narrative splits. I get what the film is trying to do. I do. It's trying to encompass the source text's unreliable ending by including both of the possibilities it suggests. First it gives us the ghost story. Then it gives us the madwoman. The way it goes about it reminds me a bit of Jim Thompson's hard boiled novel, A Hell of A Woman, which splits its own narrative into alternating lines of roman and italic type to provide two different but equally nihilistic endings. The filmmakers here lack Thompson's facility with crosscutting. Instead, The Turning provides one ending, then rewinds the film to provide the second, and ends on an image that makes no sense whatsoever, suggesting to the audience that rather than being cagey about the reality of what's on screen, the film has simply cheated. The scream on which The Turning ends is completely without context. One comes away from it wondering if there hasn't been a reel left off the end or from somewhere in the middle of the film or maybe even both. This film had a troubled production, with Amblin head-honcho Steven Spielberg stepping in and cleaning house when the film strayed too far from its original conception, but I wonder if that did the film any favors. On the evidence of what's on screen, I rather think not.

Here's the thing: One doesn't actually need to make The Turn of the Screw ambiguous. A filmmaker can choose a side and feel justified in the text. And maybe that would have been a better solution here. There is no actual evidence that Henry James himself intend The Turn of the Screw to be ambiguous, given that his other ghost stories are all fairly traditional and that the radicalism of The Turn of the Screw's narrative interpretations are drastically out of character. Moreover, by focusing on the ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw itself rather than on what actually happens at the end of the story, it misses the point. The horror is not in whether our narrator is mad or if there are ghosts, the horror is in what both impulses drive her to do, which is something the movie shrinks from. It doesn't have will to do it. If this movie were to choose either of its endings and carry it out to its logical conclusion, it would be entirely justified. That requires the same instinct for the jugular that the original story had regarding Flora's and Miles's ultimate fate. Neither ending has that instinct. The result is a spectacular train wreck.

*I do not recommend falling down this rabbit hole. It's nothing but heartache.

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