I thought our January horror curse was over with the quickly forgotten remake of The Grudge. How wrong was I to believe such a blessing could be true. It’s as if The Grudge was forgotten so quickly that another bad studio horror film had to be released a few weeks later so that we would still have our trademark January horror film of 2020 to roll our eyes at the very thought of its existence. I’ve been to a few of these January horror films, and I thought we were on an uphill streak with them. Insidious: The Last Key was competently made. The Bye Bye Man is a masterpiece of comedy. The Turning doesn’t feel like a movie, it feels like a theme park ride.
I was not aware that this film was meant to be based on the Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw. It was only until it was mentioned in the opening credits that my eyes were opened to the fact that such an influential horror text was being turned into a January horror coaster with a mid-tier cast. While I’m aware of the novel’s presence, I’ll admit that I had no familiarity with the plot of this book. After I had managed to recover from the ending of this film (which I’ll get to), I did a quick read of the synopsis of the book, baffled that an ending like that could inspire the number of adaptations that this novel has received. The ending of The Turning is nothing like that of The Turn of the Screw, it’s safe to say. I apologize for bringing the ending into the mix so quickly, but there’s so little to talk about when it comes to this awful film.
Mackenzie Davis plays a woman who has given up her job as a teacher to move to a gothic house to take care of a very eccentric child named Flora (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince). When she arrives at this spooky house, she meets the girl’s caretaker, a mean older woman ripped straight out of the 1890s. As Mackenzie Davis starts to encounter spooky things, the audience is simply left to wonder what is happening for a good eighty percent of the runtime, before a rushed explanation and a botched twist leads to nothing really meaning anything in the first place.
I just need to get a few of the things that happen in this film off of my chest, so you can understand what type of movie we’re dealing with here. After the admittedly unsettling opening sequence, the movie establishes that it’s the 1990s by having a news report detailing the death of Kurt Cobain. Later on in the film, Finn Wolfhard has the same picture of Kurt Cobain up on his wall that was used in the news report. I should also mention that Mackenzie Davis is unaware that Finn Wolfhard’s character exists until Flora mentions him, only for the boy to turn up a day later after being expelled from boarding school. A ghost tells Finn Wolfhard to tell Mackenzie Davis that her tattoo, which just so happens to be an Ouroboros on the back of her neck, is sexy. You would think such a recognizable symbol would serve the plot in some unorthodox manner, but it really only serves as a metaphorical foreshadowing. Finn Wolfhard throws a tennis ball against a wall very loudly, because The Shining is a movie that exists. Mackenzie Davis sees someone drowning in a pool outside, and dives in to rescue them only to discover that it’s a mannequin. A shot in the next scene shows that the “pool” is about three feet deep, leaving one to question how someone could potentially dive in there in the first place. Mackenzie Davis bathes with the door open because this is a horror film, Finn Wolfhard runs in and looks at her for a second while she has her head underwater, then runs away. This is of course followed by a sharp crescendo of some kind of noise to let you know that this is when you’re supposed to be scared.
Martin Scorsese once likened the superhero genre to theme park rides, but I’d like to dispute that statement by addressing horror films like these. These are theme park rides. They’re all paced the same way, with the same types of scenes with the same types of scores to let you know when you’re supposed to be scared. They all have the same lighting and the same sound design and cinematography. The only thing that separates The Turning from those cliches is horrible editing in a lot of the scare scenes, as the camera cuts around so quickly that you can never really tell how Mackenzie Davis gets away from any of the things terrorizing her.
The film was directed by Floria Sigismondi, whose last film was a biopic titled The Runaways, focusing on the rock band of the same name. She’s also helmed one of the better episodes of the second season of Daredevil. I give her credit for managing to come up with a couple of scares that are especially creepy due to the application of the female gaze. One in particular where disembodied hands crawl up Mackenzie Davis’s body was arresting, but that’s where my positives pretty much stop.
The Turning is about as bad as you would expect. If the egregious ending weren’t so boring, there might be something to talk about. I hope Sigismondi and Davis find their way to better projects, because both of them clearly deserve better. Maybe next time, don’t adapt a book without actually adapting the book.