As the credits rolled on music video director Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning, an adaptation of Henry James’ 1898 novella, “The Turn of the Screw”, the perplexed silence of the audience was palpable...
...All of us sat stunned at how abruptly the film had just ended, and as it became clear that this was truly the end and we weren’t being punked, stifled laughter escaped a few of the viewers. Could it really end like this? Not the response you want for your spooky ghost film.
Written by the team behind the script for The Conjuring, Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes, The Turning follows Kate (Mackenzie Davis), a governess sent to an isolated mansion to care for a young girl named Flora (Brooklynn Prince), who witnessed her parents die in a car crash right at the gates of their home. Despite the odd aggression of Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), the long-time housekeeper for the family, Kate finds herself having a good time and getting along with the spirited Flora. At least, until Flora’s brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), unexpectedly returns home from school, and strange occurrences begin plaguing Kate.
The film opens with a tense attempted escape from the premises by Flora’s previous governess as she watches from the window (I’m sure you can imagine how that goes), but the reason I bring it up is that Sigismondi and cinematographer David Ungaro flex their gothic horror sensibilities, with plenty of fog and some highly effective camerawork that set the tone for a chilling ghost story, and a particular focus on winding close-ups of eyes (a repeated motif). Nathan Barr’s powerful score rises up with the title, and there’s no doubt that the audience is in for something terrifying.
Except that feeling doesn’t last.
We then find ourselves meeting Kate, a woman whose father abandoned her when she was young, and whose mother (Joely Richardson) currently resides in a mental institute, left in an empty pool for some reason to paint. Kate is a teacher, excited to be sent away to care for Flora so she can “actually make a difference”, (because educating 25 members of the future generation isn’t enough for her, apparently). But we don’t mind Kate’s gentle hypocrisies, because Davis nails the role, and is totally believable as a woman feeling empty inside, and searching for something meaningful in her life. Plus, she feels a connection to Flora, in that they both have struggled with the loss of their parents, albeit in different ways.
Speaking of Flora, Brooklynn Prince is the true star of this film. In every single scene she appears in, the young actress presents an aura of charm and childlike wonder, while maintaining a strangely adult presence. Whenever the film is lagging, Flora pops up and injects 50ccs of life back into the scene. In fact, the whole cast shines. Wolfhard takes a nasty though effective turn from his “good kid” character in Stranger Things, and here becomes a vile child with a terribly uncomfortable attraction to Kate. Watching young Miles tell Kate that her tattoo is “sexy” sent shivers of disgust vibrating through my body. And Marten never fails to piss the audience off as a judgmental old woman who treats these kids like angels who can do whatever they want. They are, after all, “thoroughbreds”, as she tells Kate. Whatever that means.
But a great cast and a unique directing style from Sigismondi aren’t enough to save The Turning from an ineffective script that, frankly, goes nowhere. From almost the moment that Kate arrives at the sprawling old mansion to the final, confusing reel, the Hayes’ script employs everything in the “Haunting 101” book. The Turning throws the entire kitchen sink of ghostly terror into the film, from ghosts suddenly appearing in windows and mirrors, to phantasmal footprints and nightmare sequence after nightmare sequence loaded with jump scares. The Turning has a great, gothic atmosphere in a setting rich with eerie imagery, but the film constantly undercuts that by not giving the audience a break from scare after scare after repetitive scare. Typically, when nearly every single scene employs some kind of tired scare tactic, it’s because the film itself has nothing else up its sleeve to keep viewers interested, and that’s the case here.
Similar to the novella, The Turning acts like a sort of fever dream meant to throw viewers off, but in this case, it throws them right out of the film by including multiple mysteries and dream sequences that are there to keep the viewer engaged, but instead work to massively confuse the plot. Murder, possession, hauntings, curses, madness, seedy teens and creepy kids, it’s all there, yet instead of an engaging storyline that sees Kate trying to solve even one of those issues, we instead follow her from scene to scene as she experiences something frightening, argues with one of the other cast members, struggles with the idea of leaving, and then returns. Rinse and repeat. The plot never feels as if it’s moving forward, and instead feels stuck, just as little Flora is stuck in a house that she’s afraid to leave for whatever reason.
Why do I keep saying “for some reason”? I usually don’t, because it’s a weak criticism. But in the case of The Turning, nearly everything seems without reason, except to confuse the audience. Mysteries are never solved. Answers are never given. And instead, we’re left with an ending so jarring in its abruptness, that you may find yourself sitting there for a moment unable to move, thinking that the filmmakers are pulling a prank. Sadly, they’re not. Madness is a theme of the film, and so it makes sense that The Turning doesn’t spoon-feed audiences, but I’m afraid that even on a second viewing, that’s all this would be: Madness.
As those credits rolled, playing like some sort of obscure music video with phantasms floating about as if to mock the audience, I realized that, while The Turning likely won’t be receiving much praise, it will at least go down as one of the most perplexing non-endings of the year and possibly all time, leaving viewers feeling like a screw has just turned inside their brain and temporarily lobotomized them. So that’s something.
The Turning is now confusing the hell out of viewers in theaters through Universal Pictures.
By Matt Konopka