Producers: Scott Bernstein, Roy Lee and Seth William Meier Director: Floria Sigismondi Screenplay: Carey W. Haynes and Chad Hayes Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten, Joely Richardson, Niall Greig Fulton, Denna Thomsen and Kim Adis Distributor: Universal Pictures
Henry James’s chilling 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw” has been adapted many times in numerous forms; among the finest are Benjamin Britten’s marvelous 1954 opera and one of the cinematic versions, Jack Clayton’s eerie 1961 “The Innocents.” This misguided updating of the tale, unhappily, does not join their illustrious company; it reduces James’s classic to a fairly typical modern haunted-house movie, with lots of pro-forma jump scares and cheap gotcha moments.
For some reason screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes, who scored big with “The Conjuring,” have chosen to situate the action in 1994, referencing the suicide of Kurt Cobain repeatedly to pinpoint things. The decision does allow for the inclusion of some period grunge rock on the soundtrack, though, which is perhaps all the reason they felt they needed. Or maybe they were trying to establish a mood of foreboding via a quick pop culture reference. (One might note that given the film that follows, an opening tone of foreboding is quite appropriate.)
In any event, the updated “governess” is immediately introduced—she’s Kate (Mackenzie Davis), a young girl with a perpetually downcast look, perhaps because her mother (Joey Richardson) is in a mental institution. She informs her incredulous roommate/best friend (Kim Adis) that she’s taken a job as tutor to a young girl named Flora Fairchild (Brooklynn Prince), who’s recently lost her parents.
So Kate goes off to the opulent but depressing Fairchild estate, where she finds the child in the care of flinty housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), who’s for some reason the sole British character left by the Hayes brothers. Kate and Flora seem to be getting along reasonably well until the girl’s older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) arrives, having been expelled from boarding school for attacking a classmate. He dotes on his sister, but has a vaguely sinister personality, is subject to sudden mood swings and eggs Flora to collaborate in wicked pranks, mostly directed against Kate.
It eventually becomes clear that the children were deeply affected by their former governess Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen), who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and their riding instructor Peter Quint (Niall Greig Fulton), described by Grose as a malevolent fellow who died suddenly in a fall from his horse; Flora is terrified to leave the estate, certainly that she’ll die if she tries to, while Miles’s brooding, often nasty conduct seems inspired by his idolization of Quint.
But it’s not merely the memory of Jessel and Quint that haunts the place; Kate becomes convinced that their spirits are actually present, threatening her. The rest of the film is basically devoted to watching Kate become more and more unhinged as her fear escalates. She thinks she sees phantom figures and in one instance actually finds Jessel’s drowned body in the lake. She finds herself trapped in horrifying situations—which, of course, turn out to be that old horror-movie standby, nightmares. When she tries to take the children beyond the grounds, Flora demands to be let out of the car. And though she tries to reach Miles, he remains hostile and at times positively dangerous. It’s obvious that the film is careening toward a tragic outcome, and it does—or at least perhaps does.
To give the picture credit where it’s due, it looks quite attractive in David Ungaro’s lustrous widescreen cinematography, and Paki Smith’s production design is fine. But editor Glenn Garland has trouble giving shape to the individual episodes director Floria Sigismondi has fashioned, and both the visual effects and Nathan Barr’s score are at best adequate.
Among the cast Wolfhard, who’s becoming the go-to teen for roles requiring an aura of strangeness, comes off best, though Prince pulls off Flora’s changes of mood. One might also enjoy hollow-cheeked Marten’s portrayal of stern, stuffy Grose (a very different character from the one in most versions of the tale). As for Davis, the poor thing shows a willingness to be put through the emotional wringer again and again, but comes across as a rather simpering sort.
“The Turning” ends on a note that will leave most viewers muttering “What the [expletive deleted]?” as the final credits suddenly roll. One can interpret it as representing either the filmmakers’ throwing up their hands in despair, or as the logical, if rather silly, conclusion to the story that’s been told for ninety minutes—in which case it’s just about as satisfying as Bobby Ewing’s infamous shower reappearance in “Dallas.” In any event, it’s likely to send you home wishing you’d watched “The Innocents” instead.
In fact, it would be best to wait to catch the movie later on television, if you watch it at all. Then you could turn “The Turning” off.