By: Kayla Caldwell
THE TURNING is sitting in the theater through the credits - not because you’re waiting for some new Marvel teaser, but because you’re too dumbfounded to get up. THE TURNING is researching and subsequently reading The Turn of the Screw when you get home. THE TURNING is… bad. But is it in a good way?
* Spoilers ahead *
The film begins as news leaks of Kurt Cobain’s death, firmly establishing a timeline, but not a rationale for this modern take on The Turn of the Screw to be set in 1994. We follow young governess Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis), who travels to a luxurious, albeit old-fashioned estate to care for a kid named Flora Fairchild (Brooklynn Prince).
She was left mostly alone (aside from the house’s ghost-like caretaker, Mrs. Grose, played by Barbara Marten) after the tragic deaths of her parents. Kate is so touched by her story that she simply up and leaves her classroom of 25 students - to the overdramatic dismay of her roommate (Kim Adis) - because, “I love teaching, but I want to make a difference.” It’s a confusing reason, but there are so many other things to question in THE TURNING, that the moment passes by untested.
Now, instruction was just supposed to be for Flora, but her older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) surprises everyone when he returns from boarding school early. And it is not a pleasant surprise.
To say the old Fairchild house is creepy would be an understatement. Though, to be fair, it might be frightening to live in any home so big that the bedrooms far outnumber the occupants. But the film certainly takes advantage of its locale.
I’m going to level with you here, THE TURNING uses just about every horror trope you can think of - apparitions appearing in mirrors, doors that fly open or slam closed with no explanation, a character painting or drawing foreshadowing works for the protagonist, creepy mannequins that move, jump scares revealed to be in a character’s nightmares, seeing things that aren’t there, a scene where something grabs a character’s leg and pulls them deeper into the water, etc.
THE TURNING is meant to be an adaptation of Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. You’re supposed to question whether the governess is being haunted, or if it has all merely been in her head. This is exacerbated by the fact that we’re shown Kate’s mother, Darla Mandell (Joely Richardson) in a hospital, suffering from delusions as she aggressively paints, like the little boy in The Ring (2002) furiously sketching the last thing Samara saw before her death.
There are also red herrings galore, such as the former governess (Denna Thomsen) Miss Jessel. She left behind a journal detailing sexual harassment by Quint (Niall Greig Fulton), a late valet of the estate, who died in a horseback riding accident. His advances became more aggressive and unavoidable as time went on. Kate becomes convinced that Quint killed Miss Jessel, who was said to have left the family without saying goodbye.
Kate sees her everywhere, seemingly trying to deliver a message of warning. Things become even more nefarious, when it is revealed that Mrs. Grose not only knew about Quint’s dangerous behavior, but was perhaps a part of his demise. So what is the truth?
Director Floria Sigismondi focuses on the children, suggesting perhaps these poor, innocent little angels may not be quite what they seem. At times, Kate is charmed by Miles, an intelligent, artistic boy. However, his image is marred as she learns of the violent reason he was expelled from boarding school.
His exacerbating behavior continues as Kate's stay drags on. The brooding teen refuses to help carry dishes to the kitchen, insisting that’s what Mrs. Grose is there for, and at one point threatens to “f**king kill” Kate if she doesn’t stop the car, when his little sister has a panic attack. He and Flora even trick Kate with a prank made to look like the little girl had been drowning.
And I’m uncomfortable even writing about the crush Miles seems to have on Kate. At times, it appears the beyond inappropriate lust comes from the spirit of Quint, whose face is often seen in nearby windows and mirrors. Quint was apparently a lecherous man when he was alive, and Mrs. Grose began to worry that his disgusting behavior would rub off on Miles, who adored him.
However, that is only if you believe there really are ghosts haunting the estate. It could just be a horny teen, who creeps into his governess’s room to watch her while she sleeps. To be honest, that thought is even more terrifying than the notion of ghosts. Miles’s sporadic and wild outbursts are played masterfully by Wolfhard, beloved for his role as Mike on Stranger Things.
Prince is an absolute delight as Flora, a child anyone would be happy to have under their care. She is precocious, but kind, and silly, despite her stark and lonesome upbringing.
This is perhaps not the best vehicle for Davis, though it was likely the overwrought script to blame, rather than any fault of her own. What I will say about her character is that the styling was a warm distraction from whatever else was going on in the film.
Though the movie has many issues, nothing really compares to the ending, which comes seemingly out of nowhere. Kate is frantic about removing the children from the prying, ghostly arms of Quint, but her cries are met with laughter and eye rolling from the children, who simply walk right by her. The shot then jumps to Kate approaching her mother at the hospital, where she gets the shock of a lifetime when she sees her face.
Except - we don’t see her mother’s face. The image quickly jumps to credits, before a video of Kate running her fingers along the walls. Perhaps that was their way of confirming that, yes, Kate had been crazy. But it doesn’t play well. It’s jarring, and left many in the audience murmuring, “What?”
All of that said, I can’t exactly advise you to avoid the movie. I’ve been thinking about it for days. It even inspired me to go and read The Turn of the Screw for myself, to see how much of what I had seen was source material. I think if a movie can make you go out and do your own research, there’s got to be something there, right?
Perhaps we should think of THE TURNING less like a standalone art piece, and more like a conversation starter. Or… you should just wait to see it when it’s streaming somewhere for free. The talented young Wolfhard surely has more enjoyable pictures in the pipeline.
All photos via Universal Pictures.