Releasing a horror movie in January is a risky business, and sadly Floria Sigismondi’s “The Turning” will roll eyes more than turn heads. Chad and Cary W. Hayes of “The Conjuring” fame churn out another frightful screenplay, except this one fumbles by pushing conflicting conceptual agendas without any obligation to see them through. This leads to one of the most disappointing horror movie endings ever, one which refuses to expound on the shocking images depicted right before the credits appear. The decision to dump disinformation lacking contextual significance only condescends audiences, detaching them even further from the respected source material. Adapted from Henry James’ mind-bending 1898 “The Turn of the Screw” novella that predicates blurred lines between reality and hallucination, this version wallows in Gothic melancholy and jump-scare foreplay.
What seems like an innocuous live-in tutor position soon turns into more than Kate (Mackenzie Davis) bargained for. Hired by the school she works at to oversee the studies of a recently orphaned girl named Flora (Brooklynn Prince), Kate learns she’ll be residing in a grand estate deep in the Maine woods. A fashion-forward young woman of the late 90s, Kate finds herself confronted with an ominous manor that seems plucked right out of Bram Stoker’s imagination. It appears that at any minute, Dracula himself could pop out. Initially unperturbed by the creepy atmosphere, Kate begins unraveling upon the arrival of Flora’s troubled older brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), freshly expelled from boarding school. To make matters worse, the governess-turned-guardian Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten) is more interested in disciplining Kate with acidic verbal smack-downs than lecturing the troublesome children.
Before Kate departs to her new job, she visits her mentally ill mother (Joely Richardson) at a community art center that her mom plans to squat in until she’s forcibly removed. Unbeknownst to many, this brief interaction might hold the key to the entire narrative, especially the artwork mommy dearest is creating.
The overriding issue with “The Turning” is that the clues are so sporadic to appear invisible and, therefore, arbitrary. The story unfolds like a conventional ghost haunting, with Kate getting lost in the maze of the grounds, bombarded by disturbing voices that hint of brutal slayings and violation. At the laughable cue of disheveled hair, Kate’s sanity begins to dissipate. However, never once does the movie challenge the supernatural authenticity of Kate’s encounters, nor the effect it has on the insolence of young Miles. His devious nature is the scariest monster of all, and an early peek into the horrific and abusive man he might soon become.
The film spins several different underlying premises before settling on one that has zero ties to any that came before. Roaming from a murder mystery to commentary on the sexual and violent brutalization of women, to finally a problematic suggestion that one cannot escape their hereditary nature, the story’s lack of cohesion makes these salient revelations ring hollow. It’s a pity since the milieu and color palette are so inviting. For example, Kate’s bright red overcoat makes her look like an adult Red Riding Hood walking into the wolf’s den. Fog and shadows are employed effectively as poltergeist stalkers, and even the pop-out scares eschew banal execution.
Davis is convincing in her mental anguish, though there comes the point where even she seems at a loss figuring out her protagonist’s purpose. The promotional misdirection of Prince’s involvement is most tragic of all, as she’s never more than a sweet girl who plays with not-so-sweet dolls. Best in show are Wolfhard and Marten, unflinchingly intense in spirit while intriguingly withholding their characters’ moral intent. Despite sumptuous production design and iconic inspiration that might play stronger as a miniseries adaptation, “The Turning” is most terrified of commitment, leaving audiences befuddled as to why they invested in a gruesome tale that prides itself on being incomplete.