Turn away from THE TURNING (2020): Bob’s Review

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The Turning; 2020; Horror

Written by Carey & Chad Hayes, From the novella “The Turn of The Screw” by Henry James.

Directed by Floria Sigismondi

Starring Mackenzie Davis, Brooklyn Prince, Finn Wolfhard

PG-13; 95 Minutes; In wide-release theatrically January 24th, 2020.


I’ll make no bones about it. Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw is one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. Each time I’ve picked up, I get appropriately unnerved in its story of an unreliable narrator governess caring for two kids and the possible ghosts of the past haunting them all. Maybe it helps the first time was while I was alone overnight on watch during my Navy days, but I can’t be the only one affected by the story; in the 122 years, the tale has been adapted countless times into plays, operas, and filmed for TV and theatrically. The most well known of these is 1961’s The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton. And like it’s source, I find this adaptation to be one of the scariest films I’ve seen out of the thousands of horror films I’ve watched on my thirty-seven years haunting this world.

That, and Robert Wise’s 1963 take on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting (of Hill House). These two properties have been intertwined and connected for me. Like The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House is one of my favorite written horror stories. As noted above, both became very effective films in the 1960s. More importantly, both stories use the tenets of haunted house tales to tell more nuanced tales of gaslit female protagonists with mental issues. The truth of the spirits and what the reader/viewer experiences through Nell and Kate is left ambiguous. In the 1960s filmed takes, this carries through – creating tension and scares through this lens.

And the 1990s takes remove this uncertainty by making it wholly clear the ghosts are real, losing the focus of why the stories work, and thus muddling the narrative and characters attached to it. You may say “Bob I remember Jan DeBont’s awful but pretty with its cluttered production design version of The Haunting in 1999, but what do you mean for The Turn of the Screw”? Well, fellow geeks – 2020s The Turning has inexplicably moved it’s setting to 1994 for no reason, except to possibly try to connect Kurt Cobain’s suicide in a plot line or idea that was dropped along the way. So, close enough. And this year, Michael Flanagan will adapt The Turn of the screw into The Haunting of Bly Manor, after the runaway success of his Haunting of Hill House adaptation. It’s worth noting Flanagan’s take did show the ghosts of Hill House were real, but worked well in conjunction with the myriad of issues of the Crane family. It was also loose in plot-point adaptation but succeeded in the tone and feel. 

Thought it’s been told and retold both directly and in influence (check out The Awakening from 2011 for a fantastic underseen flick that draws a lot from Turn, as it was originally designed to be a sequel) for over a hundred years, I won’t assume all readers know the set-up. Here’s the details: Kate (Mackenzie Davis) is a tutor with a storied history. She takes a job as a live-in teacher/governess for seven year old Flora (Brooklyn Prince) in a remote estate in Maine (but feels like Ireland, as it was filmed there). When she arrives, Flora’s troublemaker brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) returns to the estate after being kicked out of his boarding school. Also present is a creepy maid Mrs Groce (Barbara Morton) and the ghosts of the missing previous governess Jessell and a groomsman Quint. These three influence the children and cause Kate’s fragile mental state to fray.

There’s a good movie in the mess we were delivered. Like Underwater of two weeks past and Dolittle of last week, The Turning was the victim of multiple delays and obvious meddling. Okay, I liked Underwater a great deal, but it does show post-production edits. For the better in Underwater’s , detrimental in Dolittle and The Turning’s. 

This is evident in the conflicting paths is in the unfocused script. Just look at how it presents the core ghost story. While it makes it clear the spirits are real based upon sequences with no point of view, it also presents the case Kate is going mad. Cutting the ambiguity of the spirits undermines the possible gaslighting of Kate. Quint’s influence is negligible and anything supernatural is pushed to the background. What’s even odder is the camera set-ups, angles, and lingering shots feel like there should be, or were, supernatural influences to be seen.  Until the film suddenly remembers “oh wait, the ghosts!” and turns into a full fledged haunting again.

Whats odd here is the ghost story is nearly dropped for a while, leaving just the torment Miles is placing upon Kate but just being his jerk of a self. It’s one of many plot lines and ideas that are introduced but not followed up upon. The 1994 setting leans a great deal on Kurt Cobain’s suicide, perhaps indicating using it for the climax, altering the book’s ending, but it doesn’t. The 1990s setting seems to exist only to remove phones from the narrative without being a full period piece. There are notions of a hydrophobia for Kate that don’t come to play, along with props and settings at the mansion that are heavily implied will return in some fashion, such as the hedgemaze, a weird sewing room, and an obsession of mannequin and dolls by Flora. 

Brooklynn Prince as Flora Fairchild in “The Turning,” directed by Floria Sigismondi.

The scenes with the hauntings are pretty well done, though. While the tension doesn’t come through (perhaps my boredom of the previous sequences seeped into the better-done scenes), I appreciated the attempt and what atmosphere could be conjured up. Director Sigismondi (of The Runaways) and her cinematographer David Ungaro imbue the film with a spooky enough gothic look. There are many good touches in the production design of the film, the great use of lighting through the mansion and hints of odd faces in the architecture. (another similarity to the Haunting in 1999)

And most of the cast is game enough, doing as best they can with the script by Conjuring writers Haynes brothers.. Mackenzie Davis is and remains a favorite up and comer after spirited performances in Terminator Dark Fate (still love that movie, suck it haters), Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town, and Tully. Unfortunately, she’s regulated to wide-eyed screaming with increasingly pale make up and chipped skin to indicate her deteriorating mental state (though there is a big jump from being slightly on edge to full fledged over-her-head, another indication of cut scenes).  Brooklyn Prince, star of The Florida Project, is wonderful as young Flora, giving her a delightful mischievous pixie quality. She brings a liveliness with a child’s morbidity. Unfortunately on the other end is Finn Wolfhard. While strong in Stranger Things and IT, he brings nothing to Turning. While Miles is written to be distant and dickish, Wolfhard plays the role as if he would rather be anywhere else, flatly delivering his lines and giving the barest modicum of energy.  

(from left) Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis) and a mannequin in “The Turning,” directed by Floria Sigismondi.

Even with these issues, for most of the run time, I didn’t dislike the Turning. It was heavily and obviously flawed with fits and starts, many unpulled threads, and a sluggish place, but I still was slightly involved, even after the third scare scene that turned out to be a dream, or a dream within a dream. 

But any, if just a sliver, of good will is pulled away by the last act. Or the lack of one. It’s generally frowned upon not to get into details of endings of films in reviews, and I’ll refrain from going into said details, but I cannot fully discuss The Turning without discussing the woefully awful climax. I apologize for Dolittle. In last week’s review, I stated it’s climax is underwhelming and rushed. But it had a third act. The Turning starts into its finale – things begin to ramp up, we get a little twist that indicates pieces are going to start to come together… And then ends.  I have never heard an audience react so loudly as when the credits began to roll. I also have never had all of an audience sit through credits to wait for the movie to start again. Vice had fake credits forty-five minutes into its runtime, and when The Turning ended, it seemed this was somehow the case – strangely in a humorless horror film. 

I wonder if there was a longer, fuller climax that was left on the floor somewhere. Where the earlier set-ups had pay-offs, things come to a head and there are resolutions. I know films aren’t assembled at the theater any longer, so there couldn’t have bee a reel missing. But it sure felt like it. A user on reddit stated he saw a test screening with a third act, but as of yet, I’ve not found any information outside of that post. I’ll keep looking, I’m curious. This insane fuck you audience of an ending absolutely sinks the film, turns the film from an underdone but forgettable waste of excellent source material into a memorably awful experience that just leaves a bad taste in the viewers mouth.

I honestly thought about ending my review three words into one of the above paragraphs in reference to the way the film ends, but that’s unfair to any reader. The Turning is a rental at best. There are elements that almost work, but are bogged down by those that don’t, especially the truly awful ending. The ending will be talked about in the same way Serenity’ s twist was spoken about this time last year. Just read the novella, watch one of the other adaptions such as The Innocents or in the same vein stories like The Awakening or Marrowbone instead. 

D (thanks to the ending, before it… C)

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