Historic haunted house drama is a ghost of its former self
The Turning (2020)
Directed by Floria Sigismondi
Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince
Hollywood has gotten pretty handy at making bad horror movies. This past year gave us the likes of Escape Room, Annabelle Comes Home, Happy Death Day 2U, Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark, The Curse of La Llorona, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, Pet Sematary, Crawl and Black Christmas—all cheesy, low-budget B movies that nonetheless made their budgets back at the box office. Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t gotten much better at making good horror movies. Serious, high-minded, big-budget studio horror films (think The Haunting, The Exorcist, Alien, The Shining) are, increasingly, the exception and not the rule.
The Turning—produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, distributed by Universal Pictures and based on Henry James’ acclaimed 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw—would seem like a prime opportunity to flip that script. James’ ghostly tale has been adapted many times over the years, including Harold Pinter’s notable Broadway version from 1950 and Jack Clayton’s acclaimed cinematic take from 1961 (both titled The Innocents). Unfortunately, this newest iteration falls far short of its literary legacy, delivering just another cheap, PG-13 horror flick filled with jump scares, creepy dolls and murky cinematography.
The film finds frustrated schoolteacher Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis from the recent Terminator: Dark Fate clinker) hired to serve as the new nanny/tutor for a 7-year-old orphan named Flora Fairchild (little Brooklynn Prince from The Florida Project). Kate’s puzzling logic for the career change? “I love teaching, but I want to make a difference.” Turns out Flora lives in middle-of-nowhere Maine on one of those gloomy Gothic estates (actually the Killruddery House in Ireland) you only see in horror movies or “Masterpiece Theater” episodes. Seems that little Flora witnessed the untimely death of her parents in an auto accident and has been a “special case” ever since. Also, Flora’s last nanny mysteriously disappeared. Oh, and her riding instructor recently croaked. Despite about a hundred horror movie warning signs, Kate takes the job anyway.
While exploring the crumbling manor’s sealed-off East Wing (has this woman never seen a movie in her life?), Kate stumbles across Flora’s teenage brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard from “Stranger Things”). Seems that Miles got kicked out of boarding school (for reasons he’d rather not elucidate) and has been hiding out at the estate ever since. Now Kate has got two kids to look after. Kate does her best, but Miles and Flora start acting creepy and ominous in that “horror movie kid” kind of way. After a whole bunch of mysterious occurrences and a particularly scary game of flashlight tag in the basement (c’mon, lady!), Kate decides that maybe the estate is haunted by the ghosts of the previous servants.
The Turning more or less follows the roadmap laid out by James’ 19th century original. The screenplay by Chad & Carey W. Hayes (House of Wax, The Reaping, The Conjuring) does update the setting to the 1990s—which modernizes it without having to worry about horror movie inconveniences like cell phones and internet access. The power of James’ spooky story lies in its psychological/
That’s unfortunate, really. The film’s director, Italian-Canadian filmmaker Floria Sigismondi, gave audiences the generally credible rock biz biopic The Runaways. (She also directed Marilyn Manson’s unsettling music video “The Beautiful People.”) Bringing in a female director and offering up a feminist spin on James’s Victorian era chiller would seem like a smart path to take. Other than contributing some grunge music to the soundtrack, the modern-day setting adds nothing to the proceedings. Even Sigismondi’s grimly stylish visuals can’t overcome the film’s clunky explication and lack of originality. The castmembers do what they can with the thin material, but it’s not much. Davis remains plucky, soldiering on in the face of increasing silliness (screaming crows, creaking floorboards and pale faces in windowpanes). British TV actress Barbara Marten cuts an eerie figure as the Fairchild Estate’s cadaverous housekeeper. But only Ms. Prince, demonstrating a nuance beyond both her years and her dialogue, comes out better than she went in.
If you’re looking for cheap PG-13 scares, you could—theoretically anyway—do worse than The Turning. But dragging a classic like The Turn of the Screw into this generic haunted house mess feels, at best, like a missed opportunity and, at worst, like an insult to English literature.