Accepting a job as a governess, Kate (Mackenzie Davis) moves to a mansion in the countryside to care for two orphans, Flora (Brooklynn Prince) and Miles (Finn Wolfhard). She quickly realizes that the children, though seemingly sweet, have unresolved trauma that is causing them to lash out. Kate begins to break down from the stress of caring for them — or maybe it’s because ghosts are trying to drive her out.
Henry James’ classic novella The Turn of the Screw is a delicate story, a balance between personal insanity and the insanity of a universe in which ghosts exist. That’s a balance that few horror movies, including this one, have the discretion to manage. Much like last year’s Netflix hit The Haunting of Hill House, The Turning is less an adaptation and more a justification to skim some details off the top (names and imagery, for the most part) while leaving behind the themes and development that make the originals so worthwhile.
This is particularly apparent in the Kate-Miles kiss, a moment that is usually treated as a clue to the deeper trauma Miles has experienced. In The Turning, there is no underlying trauma to allude to, rendering the moment uncomfortable but not particularly disturbing.
Overall the movie is more perplexing than bad, and moment to moment it’s enjoyable enough. The framing of shots often captures a kind of still photographic beauty, and there are some interesting visual motifs running throughout, especially in the use of mirrors and water to bounce reflections. The actors all turn in decent performances, with Wolfhard bringing a well measured amount of young innocence and sweet-faced cruelty.
However, there are larger issues in the dialogue and movement between shots that make the whole movie feel disjointed. In one scene, Kate teaches Flora how to put on her “brave face” when she’s afraid: It’s a nice moment of emotional connection between the two characters. But it’s hard to believe because Kate balks at every shadow and lace curtain fluttering in the breeze.
The story is supposed to take place over roughly a week, so it’s perplexing to see the rate at which Kate crumbles, often with very little provocation. At one moment, she comes across a few Polaroids scattered on the ground and picks one up, horrified — the music swells to prepare the audience for some awesome terror — only to find it’s a woman’s exposed butt with a bruise. A nasty bruise, to be sure, but it’s not as frightening as the movie wants us to feel it is.
Most of these issues put The Turning in the category of underwhelming but not terrible, until the last quarter of the film. By the time the credits abruptly start rolling, it’s clear that the movie didn’t want to commit to a real ending, so instead it leaves the audience hanging with no real resolution.
Although there are a some stylish and well-crafted shots, in the end The Turning has too little substance to keep itself going. If you’re looking for an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, you’re out of luck. If you’re looking for a full and complete movie, you won’t find that, either.