'The Turning': Film Review

A loose screw.

Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince and Joely Richardson star in Floria Sigismondi's horror film inspired by Henry James' classic 1898 novella 'The Turn of the Screw.'

Henry James' classic novella The Turn of the Screw has endured many adaptations in the 122 years since it was written, so there's no reason to think it won't survive this latest misbegotten film version. Directed by Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale) in the disjointed style of a feature-length music video, The Turning sacrifices narrative and emotional coherence in favor of a series of would-be scary set pieces that seem mainly designed to discourage aspiring nannies from pursuing the vocation.

Screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes, whose horror film credits include 2005's House of Wax and 2013's The Conjuring and its 2016 sequel, have inexplicably updated the familiar tale to the 1990s. The ostensible reason seems to be to provide a vaguely grunge aesthetic, enhanced by newspaper headlines about Kurt Cobain's suicide and an original grunge rock-style soundtrack featuring contributions by the likes of Courtney Love and Kim Gordon, along with many other lesser-known musicians.

The basic storyline remains the same, concerning a young woman, Kate (Mackenzie Davis, Terminator: Dark Fate), who is hired as a nanny for two orphaned children living in a remote country estate along with their elderly housekeeper. Accepting the job despite the skepticism of her roommate Rose (a little-seen and extraneous character, played by Kim Adis), Kate soon discovers that her young charges are quite a handful. Seven-year-old Flora (Brooklynn Prince) and her 15-year-old brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) are both clearly emotionally disturbed. And what children wouldn't be, if their parents were dead and their only companion was the truly creepy Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), who makes Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers look like Hazel by comparison?  

Yes, these are the sort of kids who think that a good practical joke is placing a doll face-down in their pool to make their new nanny think that Flora has drowned. Kate soon becomes convinced that the house and grounds are haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) and the malevolent horse-riding instructor Peter Quint (Niall Greig Fulton), who apparently had a relationship before their untimely deaths. The children certainly seem aware of the spectral presences, and it isn't long before Kate is running into things that go bump in the night.  

Cue the predictable jump scares, fueled by everything from a sewing machine suddenly turning on to a life-size mannequin moving its head to ghostly figures fleetingly appearing in the distance. Unfortunately, most of what transpires is more funny than scary, including Kate and Miles chasing each other on horseback through a giant maze and a game of hide-and-seek played in the dark with flashlights. At one point, Kate finds herself being mauled by a disembodied hand, looking like she's having a tussle with Thing from The Addams Family.

The film attempts to infuse the proceedings with a psychological component, suggesting that Kate might perhaps be going mad. To fuel the notion, it adds a new character, Kate's institutionalized mother, played by Joely Richardson in what amounts to a glorified cameo. The idea never comes to much, including in the brief climactic scene that seemed to leave the audience at the press screening utterly baffled.

Davis handles her terrified damsel-in-distress duties effectively enough, but her essentially bland performance makes you long for the icy elegance of Deborah Kerr in the classic 1961 film adaptation of the story, The Innocents (the movie still has the power to raise goosebumps). Far more effective are the quietly disturbing turns by Wolfhard, who clearly has an affinity for this sort of material as evidenced by his work in the two It films and Netflix's Stranger Things, and Prince, displaying the same compelling intensity that she did in 2017's The Florida Project. Sometimes all you need to is induce fright is little more than the right young faces.

Production companies: Vertigo Entertainment, Chislehurst Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten, Joely Richardson, Niall Greig Fulton
Director: Floria Sigismondi
Screenwriters: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes
Producers: Scott Bernstein, Roy Lee
Executive producers: Seth William Meier, John Powers Middleton
Director of photography: David Ungaro
Production designer: Paki Smith
Editor: Glenn Garland
Composer: Nathan Barr
Costume designer: Leonie Prendergast
Casting: Leslee Feldman, Priscilla John

Rated PG-13, 94 minutes