Synopsis – A young governess is hired by a man who has become responsible for his young nephew and niece after their parents’ deaths. A modern take on Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw.”
My Take – Releasing almost a year after its set original date is never a good sign for any film, especially when it is horror and the month of release chosen is January, a month widely known as dumping ground for studios.
Nevertheless, I did decide to give this film a chance as it was adapted from Henry James‘s very popular The Turn of the Screw, a ghost story which has already been adapted roughly around 26 times between films and television spanning various languages. But most importantly it had a lot of things going for it, in the sense it is backed by legendary auteur filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who termed the film as his passion project, is helmed by prominent female director Floria Sigismondi who is widely known for her music video work, and whose last feature, The Runaways (2010), received generally favorable reviews, is written by The Conjuring writers Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes, and stars young actors who are quickly rising in the hall of the fame thanks to their immense display of talent in every project they choose to appear in.
Keeping all this in mind, I had hoped that this update would be as haunting as the original story. Unfortunately, my expectations were rightfully put in check, as there is little to no story or suspense here to hold one’s attention, and that’s a shame.
Despite all the staples of the horror genre, this PG-13 film just trips, falls, and tumbles any and all attempts to scare. While it seemed like its many flaws could be chalked up to lackluster execution and post-production fiddling that likely took place after it was delayed, as opposed to a lack of strong ideas and talent on both sides of the camera, to make matters worse, it also has the kind of ending that doesn’t leave room for a sequel, nor is technically a cliffhanger, but does leave you with questions unanswered. Hereby making the whole experience generic, confusing and an unintentionally tasteless mess.
Set in 90s, the story follows Kate (Mackenzie Davis), a school teacher, who decides to leave her job to become a governess to the seven year old Flora (Brooklynn Prince). Leaving her mentally ill mother (Joely Richardson) behind in an institute, Kate arrives at the Bly estate, situated in the country side, and is immediately left perplexed with the grandeur of the real estate.
However, she soon begins to feel a bit off about the whole set up, as the nonchalant caretaker Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten) informs her that Flora’s parents died in an accident, right outside the gates, and the previous live in teacher, Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen), vanished without a trace. While Kate quickly befriends Flora, who never leaves the property and has no friends, her troubles begin when her old brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), returns from his boarding school and proves to be difficult in every sense.
Making matters worse, Kate begins to hear and see strange things in the estate, forcing her to question her own sanity.
As evident from its promos, there is no doubt that director Floria Sigismondi has created a visually beautiful looking film, with the mansion’s Gothic eeriness being the highlight. However, the film has no plot and it makes the solid start feel like a trick to string viewers along. It just not that the film is predictable or cliché, but is also a severe narrative mess.
Despite a run-time of just 94 minutes, it’s often hard to wonder what is happening and where things are going. The film tries at a couple points to do some interesting things, but then it just sort of throws its hands in the air and doesn’t know what to do. There are glimmers of an entertaining, clever horror/thriller here, but the script is so all over the place that it’s impossible to be effective.
Most of the time, there’s pretty much nothing happening on-screen, and the film is an absolute bore because there’s no real character development and barely any scary moments. It’s incapable of deciding whether or not it wants to be a psychological thriller or a supernatural horror story, so it tries to do both and completely fails. It just felt like director Sigismondi was constantly looking for the next big scare each scene, which is disappointing because the lack of tension led to very few thrills at all throughout the film, and the early jump scares suck a lot of the suspense out of it all.
And a distinct lack of characterization leaves way too many questions about what, exactly, there is to be afraid of in the giant creaky house.
For example, Flora’s fears are left unexplained, the huge personality shift in the Miles is sort of waved away and the many unexplained deaths in the history of the estate are just confusing. I kept wondering if cuts had been made to the script or in the editing room, because things didn’t flow at all and it really affected the atmosphere. If the typical horror-flick jump scares that taunt Kate are lazy enough, as is the nonsense of casting everything onscreen in so much grim gloom that we can barely see what’s going on most of the time.
But the film gaslights its protagonist, too, by forcing her to question her own reactions to what is going on around her and to flail around for reasons to downplay it all.
However, the ending of the film is easily the worst part. Without spoiling anything, the ending doesn’t feel like an ending at all. The abruptness of the ending leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of the viewer. If you’re going to end on a clever twist, the rest of the film leading up to that twist has to be focused and interesting, but here it just abandons the audience with a monstrosity and abyss of holes too vast to fill.
The cast certainly did the best with their jobs, considering the material in hand. Mackenzie Davis is a fine actress, whose potential is immensely wasted here, yet she manages to sail with whatever is given to her. The same goes for Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince who manage to impress.
Joely Richardson shows up in two scenes and has like three or four minutes of screen time and gets absolutely nothing to do here. Barbara Marten makes her role interesting and often comes out creepier than the ghost itself. On the whole, ‘The Turning’ is a messy and convoluted horror film that doesn’t deliver on any front.
Directed – Floria Sigismondi
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 94 minutes