Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, an absorbing ghost story from 1898, has been made into great films before. In fact, the Jack Clayton-directed 1961 horror classic, The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr, remains a definitive and terrifying adaptation. Another great movie that was inspired by The Turn of the Screw (though it’s not an official adaptation) is Alejandro Amenabar’s 2001 horror masterpiece The Others, which showcases Nicole Kidman’s finest performance. James’ story is so good, it’s hard to screw this up. At least, I thought this was true, until I saw director Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning, which is to the horror genre what Cats is to movie musicals.
The story remains mostly the same: Terminator: Dark Fate-star Mackenzie Davis is Kate, a single, lonely woman who decides to become a nanny (a “governess” in James’ version) to two wealthy kids living in a mansion. Kate discovers that the kids, Flora (played by Brooklynn Prince of The Florida Project) and Miles (Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things”), are bratty and weird, giggling about secrets they smugly keep between them. Also, the house is haunted.
Davis is so likeable and sympathetic in the lead; one could almost overlook how implausible her character is. There isn’t a single decision Kate makes that reflects how a human would respond to working in a haunted house. “Hey Kate, wanna go play hide and seek with flashlights on the abandoned floor with no lights?” She does! “Kate, you don’t have to stay at that scary house, why are you still there?” Kate tells her friend over the phone that, after all, she promised the creepy little girl (who may not even like her) that she would never leave her. Horror movies are notorious for characters who do the wrong thing (The monster is here – let’s hide in the closet!) but the ever-growing stack of implausible scenes and trying-too-hard jump-scares are non-stop. At one point, a disembodied hand runs up and down Kate’s back. Why? Presumably, the filmmakers are fans of “The Addams Family.”
Wolfhard and Prince play exactly two notes each: petulant and creepy. They’re good actors who can do so much more than the screenplay allows. Most of the problems stem from the script, which oddly modernizes the story by setting it on the day Kurt Cobain dies(!). By switching this to 1994, we have the use of pay phones, Walkmans, and CDs but no real reason for a slightly more modern period setting.
A movie can’t be judged by its ending (as many great films are dismissed for having bad wrap-ups) but this is a special case. I can’t criticize The Turning for botching the ending… because it doesn’t have one. There comes a point where another lame point-of-view fake-out interrupts the momentum, a quasi-twist is half-heartedly introduced, then the whole thing just stops. It feels like there’s still 15-minutes of this movie left I haven’t seen (and yes, I sat through the entire end credits in hopes of some clarity). Like a joke with a frustratingly long set-up and no punchline, this isn’t just a lame horror movie, it’s a total rip-off.
Sigismondi is the celebrated music video director of Marilyn Manson’s iconic, jarring “The Beautiful People” and Katy Perry’s “E.T.,” and this is her second film after debuting with The Runaways, a pretty-good look at the early years of Joan Jett. Her visual approach to gothic horror is visible but her efforts feel diluted. A couple of creepy moments stand out (I liked a well-dressed figure we see fleetingly exit a hallway at a random moment) but they add up to nothing. With everything filmed in a washed-out hue and the score often sounding like an out of tune violin, The Turning emerges a flavorless mess.
OK, to be fair, the truly frightening aspect of The Turning is the collection of sweaters worn by the cast. Ladies and gentlemen, these are the ugliest sweaters in cinema, a grouping of wool abominations that would win the Ugly Sweater Contest at every Christmas party. Just thinking about them gives me the willies.
Rated PG-13/94 Min.