In a remote, country-side mansion in the 1990s, young school teacher Kate (Mackenzie Davis) has just accepted to be the nanny and tutor to a young girl named Flora (Brooklynn Prince), who has been recently orphaned after the death of her parents. Kate soon has more to deal with when Flora’s brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) arrives home from boarding school. Despite the work this creates for her, she slowly starts to warm up to their presence.
But things aren’t exactly what they appear. As Kate settles into the massive home, she is plagued by strange noises and disturbed by the ubiquitous presence of disturbing mannequins. Soon, she starts seeing vivid images and nightmares that begin to suggest that there may be some sort of supernatural force stalking her. As she begins to uncover the secrets of the home and the family, she realizes she doesn’t have much time before these forces drive her insane.
Based on the novel The Turn of a Screw by Henry James, this film is the latest of many adaptations of the book. The most famous being the 1961 classic The Innocents. It’s an expertly crafted horror film that accomplishes everything a film of the genre should without relying on weak jump scares and excessive gore. With that kind of legacy, it may prove to be a challenge for a new generation of filmmakers to try and one-up that film. But even if that’s what they tried to do, the film they made never even comes close.
The Turning is a poor attempt at adapting the classic novel for modern day. Though it stays relatively close to the book’s basic premise, director Floria Sigismondi’s methods of updating it for today’s standards only succeed in, once again, alienating and demonizing the group that she is clearly taking potshots at. This version oddly feels less like a film and more like a punk rock rebel statement, which makes sense since she specializes in music videos, and her only other movie was about punk rockers.
Probably one of the better parts of the film are the performances of Wolfhard and Prince. They have a good chemistry with each other; making them believable as brother and sister. Though Wolfhard is more menacing than the character should be, he comes off as a genuinely threatening presence. Prince also does a good job in her first studio film, even if her character is somewhat annoying at times.
Unfortunately, they sit back seat to Mackenzie Davis, who gives a rather lackluster performance. She spends the film switching between over-the-top emotions and a complete “dear in the headlights” look. She never once becomes her character, and her distracting hairdo doesn’t help either. As evident as it is that she’s trying to break out and become a star, this movie is proof that she might have to try harder if she wants to accomplish that.
But the films main problems come from the story. This new version makes a noble attempt to update certain elements of the story to fit the standards of modern day; emphasizing the backgrounds of the identities of the ghosts and trying to make it relevant to today. However, none of these attempts fit with the themes of a story and feel wildly out of place, and its portrayal of the villain will only succeed in alienating the crowds their apart of.
This is further hampered by the film’s established setting, which combines elements from many different periods. It has a soundtrack from the 80s, the story is set in the 90s, and has a backdrop that matches today. The problem is that this strange combination is never given any reason for existing, and the various references often pull you out of the moment, diminishing any tension the film tries, and fails, to create.
The Turning is a lackluster adaptation of the classic novel that seems content to rely on the clichés of modern horror films rather than stay true to the story’s themes. Mackenzie Davis never gives enough to lead the film, it’s filled with weak jump scares, and the filmmaker’s attempts to make the story relevant never fit with world she establishes. The only good thing about this is that the novel has another attempt to be adapted right with the upcoming second season of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House.