The Turning (2020)




Up to a point I thought this was an okay movie. There were a couple weird decisions made early on, but whatever. Then the ending happened. Then I went home and read about the original story, The Turn of the Screw. Then I concluded that this movie was just not good.

Quick summary with more of an emphasis on the ending: we follow Kate (Ms. Mackenzie Davis), a teacher being sent to be the live-in tutor for a young girl with no parents. Kate’s own mother is afflicted with “crazy” of an unspecified, generic nature; this is important for later. Kate arrives at the spooky mansion, meets the adorable young girl, the strict maid, and maybe some ghosts. The girl’s brother (Finn Wolfhard) is expelled from his school and arrives home, and is a royal pain in the ass. Attacks from ghosts keep happening, driving Kate towards madness.

The finale comes when Kate finds out that the previous tutor was raped and killed by the groundskeeper, who the maid later murdered. His ghost is revealed to be real when he kills the maid and comes after Kate and the kids. She gathers them up and makes a break for it, leaving the spooky mansion behind. Only, she doesn’t! All that was a… hallucination, I guess? None of that happened, Kate is generically and genetically crazy, and the movie ends with her again hallucinating (I think?) that she’s visiting her mother. The audience doesn’t see her face, but Kate does, causing her to scream. Credits roll with the image of Kate’s bloody fingers lazily trailing across the wallpaper. Then we get shots of the dead former tutor spasming under water, and there may have been more imagery after that but by that point I was the only one left in the theater and I could feel the eyes of the employee tasked with cleaning up on me, silently begging me to leave.

I haven’t read The Turn of the Screw, but summaries exist online and that’s NOT how the original story ends. In it the (apparently) unnamed governess realizes that the ghosts of the previous governess and the groundskeeper–neither of whom were murdered–are trying to possess the children. She sends the girl away, and at the climax she and the boy resist the groundskeeper’s ghost, but the boy dies. A big enough difference that renaming the movie does make a lot of sense.

The ambiguity in the source material of whether the ghosts are real or not is more a debate about the story itself. The tale is a ghost story, but we the audience hear of what happened through someone else’s account, not reading/seeing as it happened. The movie thrusts the ambiguity onto us, which feels forced and clumsy. Early on there’s a quick scene of a mannequin moving its head while no one is around, a move specifically for the audience telling us that yes, there are ghosts. But then the movie tries to say that maybe there aren’t? Look, if your story was all about Kate being gaslit, then gaslighting the audience like that could work. But instead she’s haunted by ghosts–real or imaginary–and taunted by a sociopathic brat. Don’t tell me how I’m supposed to feel, movie! Let me feel it authentically! Ugh, what a disappointing ending.

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5 thoughts on “The Turning (2020)

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