The Turning: Adaptation Turns the Screw on Audiences

British author Henry James published his Gothic novella, The Turn of the Screw, in 1898. Though Hollywood has adapted the source material several times, Jack Clayton’s 1961 movie The Innocents still stands as the definitive cinematic version. Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others isn’t really an adaptation, but it shares common DNA. Earlier in 2020, Universal Pictures released yet another version of James’ haunted tale, The Turning. To say it won’t enjoy the critical regard of The Innocents would be understatement. The joint collaboration between DreamWorks Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, and Vertigo Entertainment landed with a resounding thud. In an uncharacteristic sign of solidarity, critics and audiences alike hated The Turning. In particular, the ending drew a visceral online response.

Synopsis

Aspiring teacher Kate Mandell leaves her job for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a governess for seven-year-old Flora Fairchild. Upon her arrival, the job seems like a blessing. Kate finds herself alone in the sprawling Fairchild Estate with the bright Flora and caretaker Mrs Grose. But when Flora’s brother, Miles, returns home early from his boarding school, inexplicable events increasingly haunt Kate. Cruel and and manipulative, Miles torments Kate while Mrs Grose turns a blind eye. Kate later learns that the previous governess, Miss Jessel, mysteriously disappeared. And the groundskeeper, Quint, died in a strange accident. As she suspects that otherworldly forces are at work, Kate’s sanity begins to fray.

The Turning Wastes Its Gothic Setting with Generic Scares

Even audiences unfamiliar with James’ novella or The Innocents will find The Turning to be an exhausting effort. Despite the classic Gothic setting and David Ungaro’s often gorgeous cinematography, director Floria Sigismondi struggles to conjure up much in the way of atmosphere. Everything clips along at a fairly decent pace – The Turning rarely allows its story to drag. But things unfold in a predictable fashion making Sigismondi’s work indistinguishable from any run-of-the-mill haunted house movie. Occasionally, The Turning rewards audiences with some effective scares. A game of hide-and-seek in the estate’s underground tunnels, for instance, uses dark screen corners cleverly to set up what could be the movie’s best jolt.

Throughout The Turning, one is left with the impression that there was some studio interference or, at least, some last-minute changes to the story.

Too often, however, The Turning trades on the familiar with little pay-off. Additionally, Sigismondi sets up some scares that are inexplicably forgotten later in the movie. When Sigismondi introduces a a very creepy, lifelike mannequin or Mile’s pet trapdoor spider you just know they have to work into the movie at some point. Except they never do. It’s a case of wasted opportunity that hints at another potential problem. Throughout The Turning, one is left with the impression that there was some studio interference or, at least, some last-minute changes to the story. That is, The Turning often alternates between feeling unfinished or disjointed.

The Turning Confuses ‘Twist Ending’ With ‘No Ending’

Before The Turning reaches its finale, it’s arguably just another average horror movie dumped into the January void. But with its head-scratching ending, The Turning leaps into truly ‘bad movie’ territory. Yes, expository dialogue is lazy movie-making. And horror movies are often at their best when embrace ambiguity. But there’s a fine line between ambiguity and just being incomprehensible. In their defence, writers Carey and Chad Hayes plant some seeds early in the movie that question Kate’s sanity. Nevertheless, one will struggle to connect the dots with the movie’s two endings – it’s ‘false’ ending and what amounts to ‘no ending’ at all.

Regardless of the intent, The Turning’s conclusion doesn’t work.

Like some of the movie’s unexplored scares, incomplete story threads haunt The Turning. The movie’s events are set in the 1990’s, even opening with a reference to Kurt Cobain’s death, for reasons left unexplored. Kate’s relationship with her mentally ill mother could – and likely does – tie in with the movie’s ending. Unfortunately, The Turning doesn’t flesh this concept out enough for it to work. It feels either unfinished or tacked on. Other early events in the movie contradict one potential interpretation of the ‘ending’. Regardless of the intent, The Turning’s conclusion doesn’t work. Neither clever nor haunting, the final scene is a mix of infuriating and puzzling.

Don’t Blame the Performers For this ‘Turn of Events’

If The Turning has a saving grace, it’s the performances from all of the cast. Despite a limp screenplay that lets them down, everyone in the movie delivers strong turns that should leave all involved unscathed. Black Mirror favourite Mackenzie Davis continues demonstrate why she should be in more big movies. Kate’s slow descent into madness convinces even when the story betrays the character arc. Not surprisingly, Stranger Things and It star Finn Wolfhard hits all the right notes as ‘creepy bad kid’ Miles, leaving you wonder if he’s haunted or just a budding psychopathy. His characters annoys, which is of course the point. And young Brooklynn Prince is a revelation. She demonstrates a level of charisma and grasp of the role well beyond her years. Don’t blame the cast for The Turning.

The Turning an Unfortunate Start for Horror in 2020

This January saw horror kick off the year with a total of four new theatrical releases. Maybe it was a sign of just where 2020 was going, but The Turning joins The Grudge remake as early ‘swing and misses’ for the genre. There’s very little to recommend here even for diehard horror fans. Initially, The Turning is just dull and familiar before finally settling on ‘outright bad’ with its misguided conclusion. Do yourself a favour and just find The Innocents for a late-night viewing.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: F

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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