The Ending of 'The Turning' Tries Its Best with a Classic Gothic Horror Trope
This article contains major spoilers for the end of The Turning and of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.
The Turning is going to frustrate you. There was plenty of debate already amongst critics who got to see it early, before it premiered in January 2020, over whether or not Floria Sigismondi's adaptation of Henry James' gothic ghost story sticks the original novella's purposefully ambiguous ending, but one thing's for sure: It's definitely ambiguous. Whether or not it works, that ambiguity is the whole point of the story.
To understand what's going on in The Turning, which is now available on VOD, you've gotta look back at The Turn of the Screw, James' 1898 horror novella that tells the story of a young governess who takes a position at a giant mansion that houses a housekeeper, an orphaned little girl, and her brother who is away at boarding school for part of the story. While living in the house, the governess starts seeing things, which she realizes must be the ghosts of people who used to live there. Coincidentally, the governess before her had a relationship with a former employee of the mansion, and before their deaths they spent a long time with each other and with both of the children. Spiraling, the governess starts to believe that the spirits of her predecessor and the mysterious man are haunting the house, possessing the children in order to continue their relationship.
The book ends with the governess forcing the little girl to say the name of her former teacher, which the governess believes releases the ghost's hold on her. She attempts to "save" the brother in the same way, but he dies in her arms. And then the book ends! There's never any indication whether the governess was right about any of it, whether there were ghosts at all, or if she was sane the whole time. Since its publication, James' novella has become a standard text for exploring themes of female hysteria in horror -- basically, the trope of the woman who seems to know exactly what kind of supernatural shenanigans are going on despite the fact that no one will listen to her. That The Turn of the Screw never outright says whether or not the main character is crazy is part of its appeal.
Which brings us to The Turning, and what director Sigismondi attempts to do to fashion her own ambiguous ending (rather, endings) out of the way she's adapted the story. Early on in the movie, Kate (Mackenzie Davis) says goodbye to her mother (Joely Richardson), who is living in some sort of mental institution, compulsively painting pictures at the bottom of the building's empty swimming pool. This both introduces the mother character for future reference later in the film, and indicates that perhaps there may be some unstable tendencies that the otherwise perfectly normal Kate may have inherited from her family.
Later, after her stint at her governess job living in the mansion has convinced her that spirits are haunting the house and somehow threatening or using the children for their own ends, Kate receives an envelope from her mother of pictures she's painted at her hospital. After looking at them, she has multiple visions of the ghosts, including one that appears to show the man, Quint, raping the former governess Miss Jessel -- a revelation that the woman's ghost seems to have been trying to tell Kate this whole time. Absolutely flipping her lid, Kate gathers the children, Flora (an incredibly great Brooklynn Prince) and Miles (Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard), into her car, and guns it for the mansion's front gate. After a tense moment, it opens, and she drives the children through, and they escape into the night.
Except then, the camera zooms out, revealing the headlights of the car as part of Kate's mother's painterly scribbles as Kate holds them in her hand. We're back in that previous scene as Kate trades barbs with the housekeeper, who suggests that maybe her mother's mental illness may be hereditary. In the next scene, Kate confronts Flora and Miles in Quint's room full of creepshots he's taken of other young women who lived in the house. When she demands that the children tell her they can see the ghosts too, they turn on her, berating her until she curls up in a ball at the bottom of the stairs. Then, in what is possibly the third ending, Kate wakes up in a four-poster bed at the bottom of her mother's pool. She gets up and steps over to her mother, who asks her if she saw her pictures before turning around. When Kate sees her face, she screams. Roll credits.
On one hand I admire Sigismondi's commitment to the creeping, dreadful uncertainty of the source material while trying to do a few new things with it. It's the kind of ambiguity we don't get from mainstream films anymore, especially not horror, now that every movie is theorized about and dissected online within days of its debut, angry fans demanding answers to every moment they deem a "plot hole." It's a storytelling style deeply rooted in an older tradition that I'm glad is making a little bit of a comeback, if movies like this and 2015's Crimson Peak and Park Chan-wook's delightfully cruel 2013 film Stoker are any indication.
On the other hand, watching this/these ending/s play out is like watching the movie give up on itself. The viewer is left with a "HUH???" instead of a "really makes you think," and it's frustrating to see a film like this set up so many pins and then chicken out of knocking 'em down. On the bright side, I did learn that if your live-in governess job involves playing nice with a kid who seems to be able to find spiders anywhere in his house whenever he wants, it's not worth it.
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