“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless” — so begins Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, an 1898 novella that’s the closest thing to a template for every haunted house story to thrill and chill you. If you’ve seen the 1961 classic The Innocents, or really any movie featuring spooky mansions where things that go bump in the night and your psyche, then you know the basics. Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning updates James’ tale to the early ’90s (one of the first things we hear is news of Kurt Cobain’s death) while keeping the Gothic vibe, the governess heroine, the grave secrets and the ghostly apparitions, with a few extra bits of business along the way. Something vital definitely seems to have been lost in the translation, however, and what you’re left with is a retelling that feels deader than anything skulking around the shadows. “Someone else told a story not particularly effective, which I saw he was not following,” declares the book’s narrator several sentences after that opening line. You could not ask for a more concise description of this teetering new take.
Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis) has accepted a position as a live-in caregiver for the Fairchilds, a job which requires her to leave her mentally-ill artist mother (Joely Richardson) and relocate to the wealthy family’s sprawling estate. Once she arrives, she’s greeted by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten) and the youngest child, Flora (The Florida Project‘s Brooklynn Prince). The parents are absent. The elderly woman seems cagey about the fate of Kate’s predecessor. The girl, meanwhile, couldn’t be cuter.
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Eventually, Kate meets Flora’s older brother, Miles (Stranger Things/It‘s Finn Wolfhard). He’s just been expelled from school, and radiates vibes of spoiled, rich, troubled teen. He also acts like a sexual-predator-in-training around his new hired help, staring at her while she sleeps and insisting that she take horseriding lesson from him. Miles’ creepiness may have something to do with the departed horse trainer he worshipped…who also may have had something to do with the disappearance of the old caregiver as well. Meanwhile, there are a lot of odd noises happening around the house. Flora seems to be talking to people only she can see. And then there are those mysterious pale faces that keep showing up in mirrors, and reflective ponds, and outside windows….
What follows is a rote rehash of old-dark-house greatest hits, jump scares that neither jump nor scare, and the sensation that several reels of film may have gone missing yet what the hell, the studio decided to release it anyway. Davis pitches her best wide-eyed, freaked out expressions into this void of a movie, though the real star is the film’s look. An incredibly accomplished, Pantheon-worthy music video director (she’s the artist behind those unsettling clips for Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” and the Bowie/Tilda Swinton extravaganza “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”), Sigismondi has long relied on a stuttering, surreal visual palette that you could describe as “brackish chic.” Her signature touch as a stylist is in full force here, complementing the decaying decor and Goth’s-bedroom set design. None of which can save the film’s storytelling, which ranges from shaky to downright incomprehensible, and that’s before the climax completely devolves into WTF-is-happening? The Turning doesn’t make you feel like you’ve watched a failed adaptation of a horror-lit landmark. It just leaves you feeling totally screwed over.