September 28, 2020

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Subtlety spooked away

Suspense left behind in 21st-century adaptation of 19th-century classic novel

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/1/2020 (246 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Movie adaptations of classic books will always be compared to their source material. This failed fright-fest contends not just with Henry James’s masterful novel of suspense, The Turn of the Screw (1898). It’s also up against the 1961 film The Innocents, a subtle, shivery take on James’s work that’s one of the best horror movies ever made.

The Turning can’t match its predecessors, but it doesn’t succeed on its own terms, either. With the story transported to America from England and set in 1994 — just after Kurt Cobain died, the radio informs us — it seems unlikely the filmmakers are going after the hardcore Henry James demographic. But this modernized version won’t satisfy general horror fans, either, with its overplayed jump-scares and underwhelming narrative.

When Kate (Mackenzie Davis of Terminator: Dark Fate) takes on a job as a nanny and tutor for two orphaned kids living in an isolated mansion, she seems to be dealing with her own childhood traumas. "I know what it feels like to grow up without parents," she says.

Flora (Brooklynn Prince from The Florida Project) seems like a sweet little girl, though for a 1990s child, she has a surprising number of creepy porcelain-faced dolls. Miles (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard) is a sullenly beautiful adolescent who has just been kicked out of boarding school for ominous reasons.

Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), a stern-faced British housekeeper who somehow dresses in clothing from 1942, completes this strange, unhappy household, along with an unnecessary number of eerie mannequins, sinister statues and unsettling taxidermy animals.

On top of all this gothic clutter, there might be others in residence. Kate soon comes to believe the children are threatened by unseen violence, which might somehow be linked to former employee Quint (Niall Greig Fulton) and the dark fate of the previous nanny, Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen).

Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince are good in The Turning, unfortunatelly the script features too many jump scares and not enough suspense. (Storyteller Distribution Co.)

Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince are good in The Turning, unfortunatelly the script features too many jump scares and not enough suspense. (Storyteller Distribution Co.)

Canadian director Floria Sigismondi (who has made music videos for David Bowie, Marilyn Manson and Living Things, as well as the music-themed feature The Runaways) has an eye, and there are scenes in which her visual flair combines with handsome production design to pull off some stylish, atmospheric scares.

The performances are as good as they can be, and Davis and the two youngsters work well together.

The real problem with The Turning is the scripting, from brothers Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes (The Conjuring). They pile on gotcha shots when they should be building suspense. They throw in topical issues — in particular, the story offers a strong feminist take on the source’s undercurrents of sexual violence — but fail to follow up.

Most fatally, the script doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say.

The Innocents gained its power by vibrating between two possibilities: that the children are being threatened by supernatural forces, or that these dangers are projections of the governess’s unravelling psyche. In place of this expertly delineated ambiguity, The Turning offers clumsy confusion, which degenerates into a muddled third act and caps with an unearned Big Reveal ending.

When the credits started rolling after that sudden final scene, some audience members at the screening I attended were audibly ticked off.

Never mind what the ghost of Henry James might be saying.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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