Henry James’ novella Turn of the Screw is a hugely influential piece of beloved literature and one that’s been adapted numerous times for the big screen. When Chad and Carey Hayes (screenwriters for both The Conjuring movies) teamed up for a new take on the ghost story with the legendary Steven Spielberg (acting as an executive producer here), The Turning sounded like a match made in heaven.
The film introduces us to Kate (Mackenzie Davis). She is a young nanny who has stumbled upon the opportunity of a lifetime. This is to care for two young siblings, Flora and Miles (played by Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard respectively), in an enormous estate one could only dream of living in. Consumed by the prospect of a fresh start in life and the riches the estate holds, Kate accepts the position. Yet, it isn’t long before the nanny realizes the home is harbouring dark secrets. Her fresh new start may become an entirely new nightmare she must confront.
Very early on in The Turning, the performances from the cast become a beacon of light amongst the darkness in this supernatural horror flick. Mackenzie Davis quickly convinces as Kate. Much like the superb performances that earned her the leading role in Terminator: Dark Fate, the actress showcases her confidence as a leading lady in a role that demands precision and care to ensure her character’s descent is believable. Kate slowly transforms from a kind-hearted, welcoming young woman to a tortured mess. That only succeeds because of Davis’ ability to convince us she may be losing her mind to a sinister threat.
This transformation is helped along by Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard who also impress. Their characters undermine Kate’s love and care at every corner and inside every crevice of this nightmarish estate. Flora and Miles are troubled children with Miles cementing his position as the catalyst early on. Unfortunately, Flora is just an innocent bystander consumed by Miles’ penchant for torturing those he does not trust or care for. This all combines to create a fascinating portrayal of neglect and the effects it can have on young children. Even Barbara Marten as Mrs. Grose and Joely Richardson as Kate’s institutionalized mother give decent performances that continue to strengthen the foundations of The Turning’s characters. Unfortunately, that is all that can be said positively for what this Turn of the Screw updating has to offer.
As a horror movie, The Turning fails at almost every chance to become anything more than another disappointing ghost story. Rather than focus on the actual atmosphere director Floria Sigismondi creates from time to time or the convincing performances from the cast, the film is instead almost entirely obsessed with jump scares in much the same way Corin Hardy’s underwhelming The Nun was. Loud noises permeate every moment of possible distress, becoming impressively predictable and extremely irritating once you understand The Turning’s weak formula – obnoxiously noisy attempts to jolt audiences awake, hoping to create the illusion of fear.
Sigismondi’s direction throughout is completely predictable. You can almost, piece by piece, construct exactly what is going to happen with a couple of shrieky noises thrown in to try and get you to jump from your comfy cinema seat. As mentioned before, Sigismondi does manage to create atmosphere in spots, specifically revolving around the East Wing of the estate and its feared existence. Yet, that’s few and far between, leaving one contemplating how The Turning might have played out with a stronger emphasis on quiet menace.
In regards plot, the movie just plods along with no real conviction. By the halfway point you will most likely have figured out exactly where this chiller is going. Family secrets become glaringly obvious and neither the Hayes Brothers or Sigismondi attempt to conceal this or shake proceedings up a bit. The Turning’s story almost feels like a compilation of the best bits from other supernatural chillers but executed without any real care or ingenuity.
Alas, the finale of The Turning is where things truly hit rock bottom though. Turn of The Screw was acclaimed by critics for its uncanny ability to have its reader question what is real and what the mind has conjured up. The Turning uses this concept as a means of trying to justify that Sigismondi and the Hayes Brothers had absolutely no idea where to take this new incarnation of James’ novella with a huge portion of its conflict pandering into nothing.
Probably the worst sin of all is that the finale undermines Mackenzie Davis’ fantastic performance. Throughout The Turning you can’t help but root for Kate and urge her on in her attempt to find answers and peace even if the movie around her has been deeply flawed and underwhelming. But the film’s finale is such a muddled mess, boasting an ending sure to enrage many who have invested in its previous ninety or so minutes.
And so, a copy and paste formula ends with frustration and disappointment. The Turning is yet another impressively poor January horror, one that further cements the understanding among film fans that horror releases out around this time of year are mostly unwanted studio efforts we are better off without.