Published Jan 22, 2020When Henry James' horror novella The Turn of the Screw, written in 1898, got into the hands of academics in the early 20th century, they had a field day. These academics made the story a cornerstone of the New Criticism school of thought, which believes that any story is self-contained — you don't need to have additional knowledge (for example, the biography of the author) to understand the text itself. What's interesting is that critics have historically had a tough time agreeing on a "correct" meaning for The Turn of the Screw.
The Floria Sigismondi-directed adaptation of James' novella, The Turning, is a fiercely feminist horror movie that interrogates toxic masculinity — generations of it — and its effects on both men and women, head on. (Sigismondi directed The Runaways in 2010 and two episodes of The Handmaid's Tale in 2017.)
The film opens in 1994. Aspiring teacher Kate (Mackenzie Davis) gets a job as a live-in tutor for Flora, played by the wonderful Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project). Flora's family's house is something out of 1898, with cast-iron gates, expansive gardens and a koi pond. Finn Wolfhard is Flora's older brother Miles, who gets expelled from school for being too violent. The kids' parents died in a car accident right outside the gates, and Flora witnessed it, leaving her so traumatized she doesn't leave the property. During her stay, Kate becomes increasingly haunted and harassed by a presence she can't figure out or stop — it might be Miles or it might be Miles' recently deceased riding instructor, who was also his friend and father figure, Quint. As the movie progresses, the hauntings intensify, taking an immense psychological toll on Kate.
Prince as Flora is delightful — she deftly plays the intelligent, funny, but also deeply traumatized little girl. Wolfhard as Miles is spot-on as an infuriating teenager. And Davis is great as Kate, in the way she gets frustrated with and scared of Miles, and in her wonderful, loving relationship with Flora.
Ultimately, The Turning is about the toll that toxic masculinity's terrorizing takes: the fear it inculcates and the labyrinthine insanity this fear can lead to. Quint was a scoundrel who would take Miles drinking with him, and treated women terribly. Miles starts to take on these traits, even wearing Quint's sweater, not cleaning up after himself and not caring how loud his actions are. There's a wonderful scene where he's throwing a ball against a wall, interrupting and preventing Flora's lessons.
Then there's the tormenting. Kate feels like she's being watched and oftentimes she is — she awakes in bed at one point to find Miles staring at her. The fear that Miles and Quint instil in Kate leaves her doubting herself and terrified and the film does an excellent job in depicting all these aspects. There's one scene when the kids and Kate play "flashlight tag." Kate, alone in a dark room, is being tormented by, she believes, Miles' flashlight flaming brightly across her face repeatedly. She screams angrily for him to stop, she tries to escape it, but it won't stop. It's a claustrophobia-inducing scene, deeply reminiscent of being followed by a stranger in a parking lot at night, alone.
If horror films serve the purpose of reifying our worst fears so that they might be confronted, offering cathartic relief and release in the audience, then The Turning is a great horror film. That is, until the ending; The Turning, in a manner akin to James' frustrating novella, doesn't give us a satisfying ending that answers all our questions. Perhaps this makes it scarier.
What we know for sure, though, is that New Criticism is pedantic BS. Different interpretations of a text, coming from various backgrounds, are important — and can't be helped. We will read our fears into a horror story and movie so that we might excise them, confront them. This is why The Turning is an important horror film, with well-developed characters and wonderful score by Nathan Barr.
By encapsulating the fear of being followed in the dark, the psychological toll it takes in a single dizzying scene, Sigismondi holds a dialogue with James, adds to an old tale without subtracting anything and makes it better.