‘The Turning’ Screws Its Audience

A Very Bad Updating of a Classic Story

There’s a strong sense of something amiss in The Turning, almost from the get-go.

 No, not the long-sleeved T-shirts protagonist Kate wears under her slinky sip dresses. That was a for-real thing in the 1990s, the setting of this latest adaptation of Henry James’ 1895 novella The Turn of the Screw.


THE TURNING (1/5 stars)
Directed by: Floria Sigismondi
Written by: Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes
Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince
Running time: 94 min


 

A television mention of Kurt Cobain’s memorial alerts us to the period shift, as Kate packs for her new job as the live-in governess, excuse me, private tutor of an orphaned little girl she has yet to meet in person.

Before she can head out of town, she has to swing by a mental health facility to say goodbye to her mom. I know that standards for residential mental healthcare are constantly evolving, but I’m pretty sure that the facility wouldn’t have allowed Mom to spend her days unsupervised, making portentous charcoal drawings in the bottom of a drained (and fetchingly tiled!) swimming pool, even all the way back in 1994.

As one whose mother is institutionalized in a far less cinematic setting, I can see why Kate (Mackenzie Davis, a dead ringer for Nicole Kidman’s To Die For newscaster, minus the cunning and ambition) might crave a change of scene, despite a great roommate and job teaching a whole classroom full of little kids in a non-demonic setting.

Not sure that’s enough to justify more than 24 hours in a straight-from-central casting Gothic mansion with no neighbors, no dating prospects, an overload of creepy statuary, and a barrage of occult jump scares.

It’s a breath of fresh air when Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard, appropriately insinuating, joins the haunted-house party after his boarding school boots him for strangling another student. The rest of the estate, including Kate’s blood-red boudoir and terrifying adjacent sewing room, appears to have gone unrenovated since Henry James discovered Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But Miles’ room is that of a disaffected young teen circa 1994 (or, hell, now) complete with electric guitar and a mattress on the floor.

The Turning could have benefited from more such modern-world intrusions. Or pulled a Little Women, and knocked some dust off the characters while maintaining their old fashioned manners and garb.

As directed by Floria Sigismondi, best known for music videos set in “entropic underworlds inhabited by tortured souls and omnipotent beings”, it’s creaky as the hoarfrost on the estate’s expansive lawn.

James wouldn’t have exposed his governess to the sort of horror movie tropes that teach young female filmgoers to shy away from opening any door that seems like a portal to evil, or at the very least, reach for the light switch on entry. What’s Kate’s excuse, when the original Halloween came out in 1978? She actually seems shocked to see her drowned predecessor dripping over her shoulder when she peers into the mirror in a poorly-lit bathroom. So much so that she keeps looking in mirrors. Talk about diminishing returns. I found it far more unsettling when my laptop fan whirred to life later that night in a highly-populated section of Manhattan.

I went into the Turning wishing my father were still alive to share the experience. He was a huge fan of this enduring tale, particularly The Innocents, the faithful 1961 adaptation starring Deborah Kerr in a screenplay by Truman Capote. He used to regale me with the plot poolside on lazy summer afternoons and was thrilled when the Indianapolis Civic Theater cast me as the little girl, Flora, in a stage production.

Ayun Halliday on stage
Ayun Halliday and John St Angelo, in The Innocents, Indianapolis, 1977.

As a seventh grader making her non-children’s theater debut, the psychosexual aspects of the tale, such as whether Miles and Flora’s former governess and her lover were exposing the youngsters to, or worse yet, involving then in unmentionable adult activities, didn’t register with me. But thanks to the director, I understood that the play should have left the audience  wondering if the ghosts the new governess sees are real, or the extremely problematic figments of her tortured imagination.

I kind of feel like Wolfhard and the Florida Project’s incredibly gifted Brooklynn Prince, a far brighter penny than I ever was as Flora, get this too. These two thoroughbreds bring a compelling 20th-century sibling energy to a setting that’s like the Addams’ Family denuded of all fun. (Spoiler: The Thing totally escapes the box in one of Kate’s unceasingly over-the-top nightmares, but unless I missed something, she doesn’t wind up killing the admittedly creepy Miles, possibly because a 2020 audience wouldn’t have tolerated a remake of the lingering kiss Deborah Kerr planted on the underage boy’s lips nearly 60 years ago.)

I still wish my father were alive. But I’m glad he didn’t have to suffer through The Turning, which may have killed me for 2020’s second stab at this source material. Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor arrives later this fall.

Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.

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