There’s something to be said for an honest-to-goodness genre movie, one that doesn’t flinch from its roots and executes its tropes efficiently, if familiarly. The Turning, adapting Henry James’ classic horror story The Turn of the Screw, falters in both respects, churning out scares both at a blistering pace and with plodding interest. And as a movie staying true to its source and its genre, it might have been better off left on the shelf.
Squarely set in 1994--we’re clued in by a loud TV announcement of Kurt Cobain’s unfortunate death--The Turning narrows in on Kate (Mackenzie Davis), a young tutor-for-hire who finds work at an isolated, lavish mansion to serve as governess for a pair of lonesome children. Soon apparent are the grim prior events having unfolded on the estate’s grounds, including but not limited to murder, deviancy, and unfortunate, fatal accidents.
Director: Floria Sigismondi
Released: January 24, 2020
The Turning is a ghost story, plain and simple, with its famous source material a source of inspiration for writers everywhere. Adapted into the brilliant 1960 horror The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr, it’s a classic tale ripe for cinematic interpretation. But while The Innocents was a stark, black-and-white gothic masterpiece, evoking an eerie calm with it’s sharp beauty, The Turning is a bit pulpier.
Without divulging finale spoilers, the 2020 update on James’ story rolls with its ghastly aesthetic from the first scene. Our ghosts are about as you’d expect them to be appear; ghoulish faces in mirrors, haunting, ethereal shadows and mists. Points for originality the movie does not get. Which isn’t to say we needed to reinvent the wheel for The Turning to have been a success. Genre is built on the tried-and-true, but unfortunately director Floria Sigismondi tries a little too often with her horror set-ups.
From the start, it felt at times as if scene after scene of the film is keyed in with an ominous twang of the score or an abrupt slam of a door, or Kate’s breathless gasping, waking from some nightmare. The nonstop tension The Turning generates can appeal to your basic instincts, maybe soliciting a knee-jerk “Ah!” for the first jump-scare. But the second one might not come as quickly… Or the third… Or the sixth. At a bit over an hour-and-a-half later, the film still manages to feel front-loaded with cheap scares, all but speaking its backstory to you in-between the second and third acts. The Turning is a short film that manages to feel long.
Complimenting the onslaught of predictable jump scares is an aesthetic that’s just… boring. The film is so blatantly set in the ’90s yet goes for little of cultural value beyond a vague grunge soundtrack at times, and perhaps an an era predating the ubiquity of mobile phones. There’s little purpose in The Turning‘s creative decisions, creating a forgettable environment in which we’re treated to mediocre thrills.
It’s also of no help that the performances stand as merely functional. Mackenzie Davis, always a talent, goes through the motions of terror, frustration… Madness? Maybe? Meanwhile students-to-be Miles (Finn Wolfhard) and Flora (Brooklynn Prince) affect appropriately brattish tones when called for, with Miles’ antagonism towards Kate a central, driving force of the plot. Ghosts cast long shadows, and influence children the way a parent might. Yet for all of his bald-faced rudeness, Miles never enters the realm of iconic brat, never giving moments I’ll think back on as particularly devilish or delivering a trauma of real impact. Flora’s youth and fear of the supernatural forces around her translate well enough, and to Prince’s credit the performance is never excessively annoying, as child actors have a tendency to be. It’s all merely forgettable.
The slog of mediocrity and half-baked ideas culminate in The Turning‘s final act, after the true nature of the specters’ presence and past is revealed. At this point, per James’ novel, we’d confront the lingering trauma that motivates the best ghost stories. Instead, The Turning turns a different cheek, perhaps aiming for a shock while instead delivering a cliched finale of eye-rolling proportions. Were there a payoff, The Turning‘s lukewarm horror and bored production might have been worth the effort. As it stands, we’re left waiting for a dud.
In the early months of the year eager filmgoers coming down from the awards season onslaught of quality films often find themselves left with slim pickings at the theater; smaller franchise sequels and routine genre fare. The Turning falls squarely into the latter category, but sadly fails to entertain even those basic hopes and cravings. It’s bland, it’s tired, and you’d be okay just turning it off. It’s an unfortunate follow-up to The Innocents, a film I would implore viewers to seek out now more than ever for its simple ghost story told eloquently and terrifyingly.
It would never be fair to hold The Turning accountable simply because The Innocents is a terrific film; movies aren’t a competition. It is, however, glaringly apparent in two adaptations of a source material where one soars and the other falters. And The Turning most definitely falters.