Updated: Feb 9, 2020
The Turning is a slow-burn ghost story based on Henry James’ 1898 novella "The Turn of the Screw" (it has been adapted many times; the best version is 1961’s The Innocents). It relies on a creepy atmosphere, shock cuts and unsettling noises to scare viewers. There are compelling stretches, but it does not coalesce into an effective whole by the end (it does not help that the conclusion is a tremendous disappointment). The direction is good, the performances are good and the screenplay crafts a convincing arc for the main character. It does not quite work; however, fans of moody gothic horror may want to give it a look.
Kate has been hired as Governess for young Flora, whose parents died some time ago. She moves into the massive estate, full of mysteries, and begins taking care of her adorable charge. Then, Miles, Flora’s teenage brother, returns early from boarding school and takes an immediate dislike to Kate. Plus, there is the unfriendly housekeeper who seems to know more than she says. And, oh yeah, the house may be haunted.
Director Floria Sigismondi is successful at creating a constant feeling that bad things are going on. One of the key plot elements of The Turning (90 minutes without the end credits) is the slow unraveling of Kate’s sanity. Is what she is seeing real? The fact that no one else acknowledges it just makes it that much more disturbing. The ominous nature of events is enhanced by the gloom enveloping the house. It always seems to be misty outside, an unpleasant shroud over the characters. Inside, there are the expected sequences of Kate wandering around strange corridors in the dark, hearing odd noises wherever she goes. Since what happens ends up being fairly uninteresting, the important part is how it happens. Sigismondi uses her surroundings well, keeping us figuratively in the dark even when we are about a half step ahead of Kate.
Kate is played by Mackenzie Davis (so good in Tully and the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire). She is likable in the opening scenes, establishing a woman who truly cares. Later, when things start to go crazy, her terror is palpable. She is trapped by fear and her desire to help Flora. The protagonist in this type of story needs to generate our sympathies and Davis does that as well as can be expected here. Nine-year-old Brooklynn Prince, who was wonderful two years ago in The Florida Project, was the perfect choice for Flora. She is sweet and cute, with a mischievousness that becomes creepy in this context. She is a regular kid, caught up in terrible circumstances. The off-putting Miles is played by Finn Wolfhard. Between this, the It movies, Stranger Things, The Addams Family and the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot, he seems to have found a niche in horror (or at least the supernatural). While Miles is mostly at the whim of the plot, Wolfhard’s line readings make him a little more complex than he initially appears.
The cast is good, the direction is solid, yet the story drags its feet until it bites off way more than it can chew at the climax. It seems to be leading us toward an obvious finish before trying something ambitious that just does not land. Without giving away anything significant, it attempts to combine its themes into a somewhat open-ended conclusion, that comes off as more of a cop-out than it is clever. It does not exactly ruin the earlier stuff, though it does make it feel kind of pointless. I still enjoyed aspects of The Turning, even if it has too many flaws to ignore.
2½ out of 5
Mackenzie Davis as Kate Mandell
Brooklynn Prince as Flora Fairchild
Finn Wolfhard as Miles Fairchild
Barbara Marten as Mrs. Grose
Directed by Floria Sigismondi
Written by Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes