The Turning Review
If you’re going to adapt something that has been done several times before, you need to bring something new to the table. Published originally in 1898, Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw is a subtle and uncomfortable horror story, the nature of which can never fully be defined and has over the years been analysed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. It has been adapted for film seven times and adapted for TV twelve with an appropriately numbered 13th adaptation to come this very year with Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, on the horizon.
You’d think it was the only English ghost story out there for how many times it has been recreated and how many other stories take inspiration from it. The most notable of all these adaptations is easily 1961’s The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr, with a script by Truman Capote who adapted the stage play of the same name. It is a masterpiece of mood, unsettling tension, and otherworldly performances. The Turning, adapted by Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes, has none of those things, which wouldn’t be so bad if it had anything else to really recommend it.
Kate (Mackenzie Davis) has been hired as a governess to young Flora (Brooklynn Prince), a young orphan sequestered in her family’s country estate, with only the stern housekeeper Mrs Grouse (Barbara Marten) for company. Kate and Flora get along well, but then Flora’s brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) comes home from school unexpectedly and under mysterious circumstances. What follows is a dark descent of secrets, sinister intentions, or perhaps nothing evil at all, only imaginations running wild. Whatever is happening, it is all centred on the children.
In many ways, there is so much about The Turning that is tailor-made for me. A big and beautiful ghost story, a creepy house complete with spooky atmosphere, if there are things going bump in the night in a remote location I am there front row centre. Yet, this film left me cold. It’s not the setting, Killruddery House in Ireland makes for a majestic yet also sinister Bly draped in fog. It’s nothing to do with the cast; Mackenzie Davis as Kate is a decent protagonist thrust into this world of horror whose mind slowly unravels, and at one point her wide-eyed expression or terror reminded me of horror actress icon and producer Barbara Crampton. Creepy kids are present and correct, with the amazingly talented Brooklynn Prince shining as Flora next to Finn Wolfhard’s Miles, whose sinister comes off as more stilted with moments of over the top psychopathy.
It’s not Floria Sigismondi's direction as she’s clearly very skilled and knows how to build the appropriate atmosphere. This is her first feature film since 2010’s The Runaways, AKA the movie that first reminded us all that Kristen Stewart can act outside of mooning over creatures of the night, but there’s so little here that makes it stand out and that’s a little disappointing. There are a couple of effective scares that work on building the tension and having the ghosts blurry and indistinct like an old photograph is a nice visual, especially when they appear with little fanfare or cue on Nathan Barr's soundtrack. The film is all the creepier for it, but then we’re back to loud noise jump scares. I will, however, give the scene with the spider-hands its due though as that genuinely made me squirm.
I think my issue with the film is that, ultimately, it’s nothing more than yet another version of The Turn of the Screw. It’s adequate in that regard, but nothing sets it apart from all those others and it raises the question of why even bother. Even if you don’t know the story well, you can still find everything this movie does produced better in another haunted house movie. There certainly could be something here moving things to more recent times (well, the 90s) in America and commenting on the bubble of wealth and privilege these children are born into and the internal structures in place that serve to shield them from consequence, ultimately to their own detriment, but we don’t get anything like that. The only thing the new setting seems to contribute is some funky soundtrack choices.
There is one particular difference from the source material that is interesting. In the original story, Miss Jessel, Flora’s former governess, is her own malevolent presence, whereas here she is another victim and her spectre, or possible spectre, is one of warning and it is solely the deceased Peter Quint who might have dark intentions. It hints at themes of obsession and male violence against women, but never fully explores them rather discarding them in favour of doubling down on the “are the ghosts real or is Kate losing her sanity?” theme which itself is not explored with enough nuance to make it worth it.
Then there’s the ending, which doesn’t have a twist so much as there is a feeling that instead of choosing between two different conclusions the director instead decided to do both, perhaps meaning to lean on the ambiguity that people find in the original story. Instead it ends up being odd and put me in mind of the long cut of the Clue movie that includes all the alternate endings with a title card proclaiming BUT HERE’S WHAT REALLY HAPPENED between each one. Or maybe it’s more of wanting to have their ghost cake and eat it, committing to neither reading of the material fully, and just leaving things a little confused rather than mysterious.
For audiences who want to bathe in a familiar gothic atmosphere, The Turning is a good spooky portion of exactly that. However, if you’re looking for something new or an interesting approach to an old story, you’re probably going to be better off waiting for Flanagan’s small screen offering instead.
The Turning is in UK cinemas on January 24