Written by: Carey Hayes & Chad Hayes (screenplay), Henry James (novella)
Directed by: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, and Brooklynn Prince
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Watch the Children With Care
The Turning opens with a news broadcast announcing the death of Kurt Cobain, and I think everyone involved may have taken some of the alt-rock starís final words to heart since latest adaptation of ďThe Turn of the ScrewĒ certainly understands the importance of burning out instead of fading away. In fact, it might be more apt to say this bizarre little take abruptly extinguishes with one of the most baffling endings (or non-endings) ever glimpsed in a major studio release. Rarely have I ever felt this kind of shock as a movie ended, and, while itís probably not exactly what Floria Sigismondi was going for, at least itís something. Without this already infamous ending, The Turning would be a decent but forgettable affair that would already be receding into the recesses of my brain; with this ending, Iím left with something to puzzle over at the very least, and I will take something with jagged edges over yet another smoothed-over, boilerplate product.
For the most part, The Turning is a fairly conventional retelling of Henry Jamesís classic novella. While itís been transplanted to the 1990s (for no apparent reason other than to give Sigismondi an excuse to craft an interesting soundtrack*), the gist of the story remains intact. When young schoolteacher Kate (Mackenzie Davis) quits her job to be the governess for recently-orphaned Flora (Brooklynn Prince), she encounters an immediately bizarre scene out in the Maine countryside. A vast estate stands virtually empty, lorded over solely by Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), Floraís stern, almost cagey nanny. Flora proves to be a strange but sweet child, and sheís definitely more amenable than her petulant older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard), whoís just returned home following an expulsion from boarding school. Between his increasingly hostile behavior, the half-whispered allusions to Kateís mysteriously-vanished predecessor, and the spooky aura of this big, desolate house, it becomes clear that this poor young woman has stumbled into something ghastly.
The exact nature of the ghastliness ultimately remains in question, as it should be given the source text. Jamesís novella has fascinated audiences for over a century precisely because itís so elusive in its delicate treatment of psychology and the supernatural. Itís easy to read the original tale and argue that everything on the page should be taken at face value; itís equally easy to argue that everything is thrown into question by unreliable characters and Jamesís unwillingness to connect all of the dots. Sigismondiís film only embraces this aspect with some last-minute nonsense that just plain frustrates more than it fascinates: thereís carefully-crafted ambiguity, and then thereís literally ending the story in the middle of a climactic twist. Weíll circle back around to this, but, rest assured, itís quite a choice.
Itís also one of the few things that distinguishes The Turning, an otherwise conventional haunted house movie. You perhaps expect more from screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes, the brain-trust behind the enormously effective Conjuring films. Turning them loose in Jamesís sandbox should yield something a little more inventive than this, which mostly amounts to a rote collection of obvious jolts and fake-outs. Subtlety is practically non-existent since the first overt scare (which occurs on Kateís first night in the manor) bludgeons the audience with a shoddily-animated ghost accompanied by a loud shriek. From there, The Turning proceeds down the typical path that finds characters slowly creeping down ominous hallways to catch fleeting glimpses of something before their search is punctuated by predictable jump scares. You can pretty much set your watch to most of the haunted house shenanigans: I mean, at this point, if you prominently feature a creepy mannequin and donít have its head mysteriously turn, are you even trying?
To her credit, Sigismondi does soak this thing in some pretty sinister vibes. She definitely has an eye for creating a dreary, unsettling ambiance with some nice, lingering camerawork that allows the lens to take in the bleak house and its foreboding surroundings. The Turning is strikingly realized from an aesthetics standpoint, as Sigismondi has a bold, vivid vision that does its best to emphasize the gothic atmosphere between the obligatory outbursts meant to startle people out of their seats with loud, obvious gags. You can sense a more patient, ethereal, and downright uneasy film lurking somewhere in the depths of The Turning. Like The Nightcomers before it, this take brings the sexual subtext of Miss Jessel and Quintís relationship to the forefront and makes it clear it was an abusive affair, only to mine it for more cheap schlock and empty scares. Exploring this furtheróand perhaps even threading a line through Quintís misogyny and Milesís obvious distaste for Kateómight have resulted something a little bit more substantial about the way this kind of behavior is passed on.
Instead, youíre left with this sort of lifeless thing that lumbers along despite the immense talent at work. Davis has quickly become one of my favorite performers in recent years, and she does well here in what is ultimately a pretty thankless role that has her skulking down hallways and yelling at a couple of kids. She brings a conviction even to this, though, and certainly enough for audiences to invest in her plightówhich is exactly why itís so frustrating that the film essentially hangs her out to dry with its abrupt ending. Likewise, her younger co-stars also make quite an impression, only to be left dangling as a pair of question marks themselves. Wolfhard is the most obviously troubled as Miles, a complete twerp who invites disdain from the moment he appears on-screen. His counterpart Prince straddles a more delicate line between innocence and ominous; at times, she seems to be merely weird, simply because of her bizarre upbringing. At others, she comes across as a very coy kind of sinister kid, one whoís hiding some kind of secret and who enjoys toying with her new governess.
Of course, nothing ever quite explains either kidsí behavior. Even Jamesís original novella offers the suggestion that Flora and Miles might be possessed by Jessel and Quintís malevolent spirits; here, those spirits only function as some queasy backstory and manifest themselves for some rote jump scares. We know that Quint had some influence over Miles, but, for the most part, itís easy to assume that heís really just an entitled little asshole. Iíd say the ending offers something in the way of an explanation, but it really doesnít, not when the film literally pulls the rug out from beneath its own ending. The Turning looks to conclude definitively (if not predictably) enough, only to linger on for a baffling, abrupt coda that throws everything into question. Sure, thatís technically in keeping with the ambiguity of the original text, but the execution here is so slipshod that it feels more like the film just quits. If theaters were still equipped with 35mm projectors, youíd assume that someone forgot to load an entire reel.
As such, a mystery still lingers by the end of The Turning, albeit one that certainly wasnít intended: how, exactly, did this collection of talent wind up in such a dud of a film? One name in particular is fittingly something of a ghost here, as Stephen Spielberg was responsible for green-lighting the film as a passion project. A tumultuous development saw the film pass through various writers and another director before Sigismondi came aboard to shepherd it onto the screen. Several Amblin credits remain, but Spielbergís name is nowhere to be found, which might be more damning than anything else I can say about The Turning. You almost hesitate to be too critical of anyone involved here since this seemed like such a difficult, troubled production; sometimes, these sort of misfires just happenóthough Iím also not quite sure this is an excuse to send a movie into theaters with such a baffling ending.
But, again, thatís likely going to be The Turningís legacy, meaning itíll at least be remembered for something; hell, nearly a decade later, I couldnít tell you anything that happened in The Devil Inside save for its similarly abrupt ending. Of course, that film also offered audiences a website to consult to read about more; The Turning, on the other hand, simply greets you with some cryptic footage during the end credits that youíre hoping will illuminate matters. Donít count on it, though: the only illumination comes from the auditorium house lights compelling you out to the theater lobby, where youíre left to fumble over what you just sawóor maybe saw, or didnít see at all. For better or worse, The Turning isn't one of those movies you've completely forgotten about by the time you start your car to leave the parking lot, I guess.
*Because I didnít recognize any of the songs, I thought Sigismondi had culled some super obscure deep cuts; instead, the tracks here are all newly-recorded songs by modern bands (with the participation of Kim Gordon and Courtney Love). Read more about it here.
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