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Muddled 'The Turning' Could Turn You Off Haunted-House Movies


Published January 29, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 3, 2020 at 9:40 a.m.

THE KIDS AREN’T ALL RIGHT Davis plays a young tutor in over her head in Sigismondi’s misconceived horror flick.
  • THE KIDS AREN’T ALL RIGHT Davis plays a young tutor in over her head in Sigismondi’s misconceived horror flick.

In a 2012 New Yorker piece, Brad Leithauser called Henry James' The Turn of the Screw "a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity." Is the 1898 novella a ghost story, or is it a tale of madness and murder with a delusional narrator? Generations of critics have debated the question — demonstrating, in Leithauser's view, "how adroitly and painstakingly James plays both sides."

Perhaps it's that very ambiguity that has also made the novella so adaptable to other media. The Turning is far from the first film version of The Turn of the Screw, but it could well be the worst. Helmed by veteran music-video director Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways), the movie looks stylish and unsettling frame by frame, but it inadvertently proves that "playing both sides" is not as easy as it sounds. Without a masterful storyteller at the helm, the "bold pursuit of ambiguity" yields a dreamlike jumble of suggestions that is less chilling than boring.

The film is set in 1994 for no apparent reason except to clothe protagonist Kate (Mackenzie Davis) in luscious upscale-thrifting ensembles. The starry-eyed young teacher accepts a position as "private tutor" to orphan Flora (Brooklynn Prince), who lives on a ginormous estate with only a forbidding housekeeper (Barbara Marten) for company.

But other presences soon make themselves known. Doors slam; shadows flit about; a mannequin seems to move of its own volition. The arrival of Flora's brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), yields new varieties of creepiness. Aged up from the novella, he hits on Kate and generally acts like a budding sociopath, making everything that was feather-subtle in James' tale groaningly explicit.

Eventually, as in the original, Kate comes to believe the house is haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor and a male servant, who had a sexual relationship. But is she hallucinating, afflicted by the same mental illness as her mother (Joely Richardson)?

The short answer is nope. The long answer is ... maybe? Less than halfway through the movie, Sigismondi and screenwriters Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes (The Conjuring) show us an unambiguous supernatural manifestation when Kate is absent, seemingly doing away with the whole "unreliable narrator" thing.

If the filmmakers were playing by any sort of rules, this choice would consign the movie to conventional haunted-house territory. Yet Sigismondi continues to work all the signifiers of "ambiguity" — dream sequences, slippages in time and reality, and, most unforgivably, an ending that plays like it was randomly chosen from a bunch of scenes that looked cool.

Indeed, The Turning always looks cool, with pulsing reds and greens recalling the palette of Crimson Peak. But when a story has no consistency, it's tough to identify with the heroine, much less fear for her. Davis makes a convincing transformation from perky to paralyzed, and Prince (The Florida Project) continues to be a wonderfully un-child-actorish child actor. But they can't overcome the waffling script.

The Turning makes one change to the story that offers potential for a timely reinterpretation: The relationship between maybe-ghosts Quint and Jessel is portrayed as having been nonconsensual. Combined with Miles' sexual aggressiveness, that makes Kate's position in the lonely castle particularly icky. But, having made the constant threat of rape in gothic literature from subtext into text, the film does nothing with that theme except to use it for shock value.

James showed that the uncertainties of well-crafted psychological horror can be the stuff of a classic. The Turning, by contrast, has no screws to turn.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Turning"

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