You know what book totally rocks? The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. When my deliciously co-editor and I first met, it was the first book that I leant him – since then, the two of us have been on a two-person mission to gorge on every version of the brilliant, iconic ghost story – following a nanny hired to watch the children of a wealthy family at their distant, isolated estate, after the mysterious vanishing of the previous staff, it’s a novella based around the simple question: is any of this real? Or is our leading woman just losing her mind?
Read it, is what I’m saying, if you pick up no other horror books this Halloween season. You certainly won’t be the first or the last – given the story’s iconic place in horror history, it’s one that is frequently tapped-into by horror creators for fresh takes and new adaptations. In fact, one of the most highly-anticipated ones is coming out tomorrow – Mike Flanagan‘s follow-up to the sensational The Haunting of Hill House adaption, The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on Turn of the Screw, is hitting Netflix in less than twenty-four hours, and I, for one, am pissing myself with excitement. Not metaphorically.
But anyway. There was actually another adaptation of the book out earlier this year, before cinemas ceased to be, entitled The Turning. The dreadful reviews at the time put me off this Mackenzie Davis-led, eighties-set update to the story, but honestly, I can’t stay away from any version of this story you tantalize me with, and I finally got around to watching it.
Now, the bad reviews had me set up to expect something truly awful, from start to finish. Floria Sigismondi’s take on the story, I was told, just sucked ass – despite pop culture’s favourite cousin, Finn Wolfhard, rocking up in a leading role, nothing, it seemed, could save it.
But look – I actually think The Turning is, very nearly, a fucking fantastic take on the story. Mackenzie Davis is a solid lead, and Wolfhard, playing against type as a deeply unlikeable and damaged teenager, is suitably cold and unsettling. The setting is striking, the direction hashes out some beautiful visions of the manor and the grounds, But what I liked more than anything was the take on the actual haunting.
The Turning isn’t haunted by ghosts. It’s haunted by abuse – I mean, pretty much all horror is about some kind of abuse these days, so it might not be the most ground-breaking take on the genre, but this one really works. The Turn of the Screw’s story fits comfortably with this notion of sexual abuse, by the previous staff, hanging dangerously over the heads of everyone left in the house. It’s an inventive take, bold and modern, and honestly, it’s built subtley and with great care into the plot in a way that works. How are they going to fuck this up? I thought to myself, as we closed in on the last ten minutes.
But they did. The Turning, if it had stuck it out, if it had really leaned in to this theme, could have been one of the best versions of this well-trodden ground to date. It walks right up to committing to this notion of the story as a metaphor for the lingering effects of abuse and misogyny, especially on children who have witnessed and experienced it…and then, in the last two minutes, it trips over that line and falls flat on its face.
If you take The Turning as everything but the pre-credits ninety seconds, it’s a really solid film, maybe even a great one. But the script is afraid to commit to something as difficult and painful as abuse as a central theme, and instead, hits us with a dreadful cop-out that makes the whole thing feel like a waste. It’s a disservice to the brilliant book, and to the film that came before – the film that promised something far more interesting. I can only hope that Bly Manor doesn’t flub the ending like this – but either way, it’s not got much stiff competition as 2020’s premier Turn of the Screw adaptation.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Variety)