Reviewed by Kristy Puchko
The glory of psychological horror is the doubt injected within it. Is there truly a malevolent spirit creeping through creaking halls of the grand old house? Is there someone lurking in the dark, hungry to do harm? Is there a Babadook knock-knock-knocking at the closet door? Or is it all in the mind of a harried woman pushed to bring of sanity? The “what if” of it all is crucial to the stinging pleasure of this viewing experience, tickling your brain with possibilities. Perhaps the most popular tale of such stories is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. This gothic horror novella has been adapted to film and television dozens of times over the past 122 years. And Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning certainly is another one, and almost a great one! Shame its attempt to give this old tale a fresh relevance is fumbled in a bewildering final act.
The script by Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes hews close to the original setup of James’ novella. Mackenzie Davis stars as a Kate, dedicated young teacher who agrees to take a governess job at a far-flung estate, where she will tutor an orphaned girl named Flora (The Florida Project‘s Brooklynn Prince). The house is vast, filled with shadowy corners, strange staircases, and dark secrets. But Kate is instantly charmed by the plucky child with a big imagination and a crooked grin. However, she’s less delighted by the house’s other residents.
Expelled from boarding school, sneering adolescent Miles (Finn Wolfhard, from Stranger Things) crashes home as a problem child who lives to make Kate squirm. He creates distraction outside her classroom, creeps into her room while she sleeps, and flirts with her in ways both aggressive and unnerving. Regardless, the scowling housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten) will hear no unkind words against these strange “thoroughbreds.” Yet Miles’ menace might be the lesser of evils in the house. As the days drag by, the nights grow longer. Kate cannot look into a mirror or out a window without seeing the screaming visage of a drowned woman or the smirking face of a mustachioed man. She begins to dig into the mysteries of the house to save herself and the children from what she believes is the damning influence of the dead. But is it all in her head? And if so, is she the real threat to Flora and Miles?
As to changes, Hayes and Hayes plunk James’s Victorian-era tale into 1994, establishing this setting with a TV news report on the suicide of grunge rock icon Kurt Cobain. Also added is a cool roommate (Kim Adis), who’ll play convenient confidante briefly before being forgotten, and a mentally ill mother who mutters and serves as an early sign that Kate might not be all stable as she seems. This setting allows music video director Sigismondi to relish in rock within the film’s diegetic soundtrack. Through blasting speakers and blaring drums, Miles finds a place to express his unspoken rage at death, desperation, and Kate. Also, this era makes it too soon for there to be omnipresent cellphones, so the governess’s isolation at the manor feels complete and chilling.
A more dramatic shift from the source material comes in the backstory of the could-be ghosts, who Kate believes were the previous governess Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) and Miles’ late riding instructor Peter Quint (Niall Greig Fulton). Mrs. Grose tells her the pair was romantically involved, which is true to James’ origins. But ghostly flashbacks and Jessel’s diary reveal the “brute” Quint to be less of a romantic rogue and more of an abusive stalker and sadistic rapist. This tangles with Miles’ aggressively sexual behavior toward Kate, constructing a theme about the trauma and contagion of toxic masculinity. It’s a compelling window into the issue, exploring not only the horrors that women like Miss Jessel and Kate face when subjected to sexual misconduct, but also the harmful effect on young boys who are taught through example that women are meant to be conquests or conquered. Miles, who was once a great student and a good boy, is being annihilated by Quint’s influence. Thus, the Hayes’ script brings an impressively feminist spin to The Turn of The Screw, using the old tale of ghosts and hysteria to explore contemporary patriarchal evils that haunt women and children.
Outside its social commentary, The Turning offers exactly the kind of scares you’d hope for in a haunted house thriller. Sigismondi made her name helming music videos for Marilyn Manson, Tricky, and David Bowie. Her frightening flashes of ghosts in shadows, windows, and watery graves reflects this history through imagery that’s scary yet strangely enchanting. She creates dread through a soundscape of creaking wood, straining bedsprings, clattering shutters, and urgent, inky whispers. She lingers on close-ups of reactions to allow the moment of horror or haunting to sink under our skin and bristle. Plus, she has a killer cast to coax this ghost story to life.
Davis, who’s been dazzling since Sophia Takal’s underseen thriller Always Shine, brings a breezy charm to the film’s first act. It’s easy to connect to Kate, who shoulders her mother’s challenges with the same “brave face” she puts before a button-pushing Miles. But as the house unfurls horrors Kate cannot rationalize, Davis’s face crumbles from confident to guarded, then haunted, then outright horrified. Her mouth contorts from a beguiling smile into a nightmarish maw; her eyes stretch from warm to harrowed. She is transformed by terror.
In scenes of frolicking and friendship, Prince is her perfect scene partner, crackling with such genuine childish giddiness you might wonder if Sigismondi directed her to treat the movie’s making like a gleeful game. Prince’s mischievous smile, sparking spirit, and playful eruptions make her Flora easy to adore, so we instantly understand why Kate can’t just run away when things get weird. By contrast, Wolfhard, switches off his Stranger Things sweetness, hardening his pale visage to stone and igniting his eyes to fire. As Miles, he brings serious We Need To Talk About Kevin energy. So when Kate is being faced down by a scrawny teen boy, the threat feels breath-snatchingly scary.
Sadly, The Turning throws all this richness and festering terror away with an ending that goes wildly off-book into the inexplicable. Sparing spoilers, I will say this: It’s a finale that will leave audiences frustrated and furious. And I’m not guessing. I’m reporting. At the advanced screening I attended, the flummoxing final shot cutting away to end credits sparked several audience members to cry out variations of “What the hell?!” All the good will earned by a crackerjack cast, elegantly elegiac visuals, and a thought-provoking subtext is scuttled by a clumsy and confounding conclusion. Sincerely, it’s an astonishingly bad ending. Which might explain how The Turning turned up in the cinema dumping ground that is January.
The Turning is now in theaters.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com