The Turning (2020) Review

A DISMAL (AND UNSATISFYING)

HORROR FEATURE


 

Horror feature films have indeed had the fair share of hits and misses over the years; garnishing spooky tales of a wide variety of aspects to “scare” its cinematic characters as well as its viewers. Stories of spectral ghosts, ancient demons, nightmarish ghouls, haunted houses, deranged psychopaths, and murderous individuals have been the genre’s “bread and butter”, with Hollywood trying new ways of storytelling and trying to entice moviegoers to get lost within these horror flicks. In addition, the adaptation of literary works have also played a part in horror movies by taking well-known / bestselling properties from a range of authors, including Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Harris, Daphne Du Maurer, Susan Hill, Bram Stoker, and several others. Now, Universal Pictures (and DreamWorks Pictures) and director Floria Sisgismondi present the latest horror motion picture offering with the film The Turning, which is based off of author Henry James’s novella “The Turning of the Screw”. Does the movie find its “scares” with a modern audience or is just another “forgettable” horror feature?

THE STORY


In 1994, Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis) is a school teacher who has been recently offered an opportunity to become a governess to Flora (Brooklyn Prince) and Miles Fairchild (Finn Wolfhard), two orphaned siblings who live inside a remote estate, run by Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten). Pulled away from here everyday life for a chance at a unique employment opportunity, Kate says goodbye to her mentally unstable mother, Darla (Joely Richardson), before heading to the Fairchild estate, a sprawling yet isolated mansion estate, and tries to make a difference in her new surroundings, reaching out to bond with two children. However, while Flora is inviting to Kate, Miles, a surly teenager, is a bit more troublesome and uninviting to the new governess. This is made worse as Kate is quickly confronted with the eeriness of the massive house, soon finding the line between reality and nightmarish horrors blurring. Unable to give up on her young charges and striving to remain committed to the job, Kate carries on, gradually exposed to the hidden evil of the Fairchild Estate and learning that the disturbing truths behind its past.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


As I’ve stated many times before, I’m not the biggest fan of horror movies. I will never discredit anyone likes them, but let’s say that these productions are usually not my “cup of tea”. However, in my attempts to “broaden my horizons”, I’ve been trying to my cinematic hand at viewing several horror movies (some classic and some modern-day recent releases), so I’ve started to appreciate the taste of horror feature that go “bump in the night”.

Naturally, this brings me back to talking about The Turning, a 2020 psychological horror feature that seeks to adapt author Henry James’s classic novella tale. I really didn’t hear much about this movie when it was first announced, but (after seeing the movie) I did some research on it and learned of its “long road” of getting into production. Originally, the project was gonna be produced by famed director Stephen Spielberg (under his Amblin Entertainment), with actresses Alfre Woodward and Rose Leslie being also attached to the project in 2016. However, five weeks before shooting, Spielberg pulled the plug on the project; citing that the writer Scott Z Burns’ 1-page rewrite caused the entire story’s fabric to the feature to changed and no longer resembled the movie that the studio wanted to make. Eventually, the project resumed a year later, with new director Floria Sisgismondi attached to helm the movie, with a new cast and screenplay rewriting the original. What I did see was the film’s movie trailer a few times and certainly felt like a “today’s horror movie”, with plenty of creepy scares and a twisted sinister evil has the film’s premise. As I’ve stated before, I’m not so much a huge fan of horror films, but I was willing to give The Turning a chance; deciding to see it a Sunday matinee of it at my local theater. What did I think of it? Well, it’s not a good feeling at all. Despite an atmospheric nature, The Turning squanders its source material potential for a lazy and generic horror feature that never quite “scares” and leaves its narrative muddling in an inadequate entertainment viewing. For a horror movie that tries to be creepy and spooky, this project fails to deliver on that front; choosing style over substance in a flat way.

As mentioned above, The Turning is directed by Floria Sisgismondi, whose previously directorial works includes The Runaways as well as several episodes of TV series like American Gods, Daredevil, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Given her past projects, Sisgismondi makes The Turning her most ambitious project by stepping into the horror genre realm and presenting Henry James’s novella tale into a new cinematic light. In that regard, I do give Sisgismondi some credit; making her “splash” into the genre and taking narrative that’s quite ripe for a new generation of moviegoers to explore, especially since the horror genre has been slowly on the rise for the past decade or so. Also, with a runtime of only 95 minutes long, Sisgismondi shapes The Turning to have a timely duration, but makes for a slow and unimpressive pacing (more on that below).

 

Perhaps one of the strongest attributes that The Turning has to offer is in its visual presentation, which offers a horror feature’s playground to play around in. Of course, I’m talking about the movie’s primary setting (i.e. the Fairchild Estate) certainly looks quite appropriate and visually beautiful (in a horror story way) that juxtaposes the tale being told. From the expansive gardens (including mazes, hidden ponds, and a secluded woodland surrounding) to the once lavishing interiors of the large mansion estate, which has a once elegant appeal that has slowly waned over time, the film’s background aesthetics certainly stand out and help create that traditional “atmospheric” mood throughout The Turning. Thus, the film’s “behind the scene team”, including Nigel Pollock (art direction), Paki Smith (production design), Justine Wright (set decorations), and David Ungaro (cinematography), deserve praise for the involvement in the film’s set pieces throughout the movie (again, probably one of my few persona likes about the film). Additionally, movie composer Nathan Barr present a good (yet standard) score for The Turning, which certainly gets the job done in creating “mood” music throughout, but nothing about the music truly stand out.

Unfortunately, The Turning is utterly riddled with problems and struggles to find what it wants to be; weighing the feature down in being both a spooky horror film and a cinematic story. For starters, the movie is horribly boring. Yes, I do understand that sometimes horror movies can be the somewhat “slow burner” by creepily peeling back its sinister tale in slow manner; allowing the viewers to absorb the setting and narrative in a way that allows character growth and intrigue (instead of thrusting viewers into a barrage of nonsensical scares). However, this tactic only works if the movie’s narrative is strong enough to uphold the “slow burner” progression, which unfortunately the film does not. In fact, The Turning struggles quite a lot in how it wants to explore its narrative. This, of course, probably stems from the development nightmare of getting the project off the ground (i.e. too many “cooks” in the kitchen), but also from Sisgismondi’s direction, which (again) has a difficult time in shaping the feature of what it wants to be. This causes the film to have a peculiar execution aspect as certain events seem important, but then left completely left unsaid by the time the credits roll. So, what does Sisgismondi want The Turning to be? A psychology movie? A haunted house flick? Well, it’s quite hard to what that answer is as the film is completely baffling at some points and quite generic in others. What happens is this: Sisgismondi makes a sluggish feature that takes awhile to get going.

Speaking of generic, Sisgismondi The Turning can’t make the movie’s presentation rise above the formulaic nature of the redundant “haunted house” narrative aspect. Sure, the visual look of the house is quite stunning (as mentioned above), but that’s about it. So, expect the commonly used haunted house tropes, including forbidden areas of the house, stuff moving unexpectedly, a mysterious past of recently deceased, and a lot of ghoulishly looking things that happen. It’s all well and good, but its been done better in other projects. The Turning just muddles it way through these clichés in a way that’s quite boring and vanilla to the touch. Basically, if you’ve seeing one haunted house movie, you’ll know what to expect. Thus, Sisgismondi doesn’t really put her own filmmaking stamp on the whole “haunted house” horror genre; relying heavily on past ideas and classic atmospheric nature. In addition, the horror scares that Sisgismondi produced in The Turning are unoriginal and completely devoid of actual…. scares. Sure, there is the mundane use of modern day “jump scares” in trying to “grab the attention” of viewers, but it comes off in a poor and tasteless manner that feels predictable and lackadaisical whenever presented. In truth, much of the “actual” scary moments were mostly all presented in the film’s movie trailer, which goes back to the discussion of some movie trailers ruining the motion picture it trying to showcase (i.e. showing all the best parts of the film in the trailer). This is quite apparent in The Turning.

Also, the film’s script, which was penned by Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes, is quite problematic within many of these areas already mentioned above. Yes, the adaptation of James’s novella has been done before, but this 2020’s screenplay is just bland to the touch and has a difficult time to stick its landing. This is most apparent in the story’s plot progression, which slow, unimaginative, and formulaic, with very little surprises. In fact, the movie never gets fully involved within its plot, with the script meandering through character-built moments between Kate and the Fairchild children that don’t go anywhere…. just reinstating the obvious (i.e. Flora is innocently youthful, Miles is a troubled kid, and Kate worries over stuff). Likewise, the film’s story has certain pieces that are presented and never fully answered, including the previous nanny to the Fairchild (Miss Jessel) and the previous tutor (Quint). There are some explanation to them, but the script fails to deliver these mysteries; leaving them dangling and unexplained in a fragmented state. Plus, the dialogue in the movie is quite dull (more on that below). Additionally, the movie’s setting is also a peculiar one, with The Turning set during 1994. Of course, with Henry James’s original source material being published around the late 1800s, the originals story of “The Turn of the Screw” is (presumably) to be told in the era. The updating of the tale’s setting is naturally, but why 1994? I imagine that Sisgismondi and the writers probably wanted to keep the feature in a more modern setting, but not too modern; dating the feature back to a time when cell phones, the internet, and social media and keeping the film’s characters (and by extension…the narrative) isolated from the outside world. However, beyond a mention of the death of Kurt Cobain at the beginning of the film (and a few songs choices here and there), the movie never really utilized the 1994 time setting. So, again, why set The Turning during 1994?

Then, of course, there is the twist that occurs during the film’s third act (near the ending of the feature…before the credits roll). As mentioned, majority of the film is quite boring and doesn’t really go anywhere (just trying to add mystery), but the movie does pick up during the third act, but it also has the most frustrating part of The Turning (i.e. “the twist”). While I won’t spoil what it is, the actual “twist” that happens feels utterly unsatisfying. Sure, it could’ve worked if the movie planted the ground work for it and had enough time (substance) to make it feel natural within the narrative’s context. However, the twist comes completely left field (barring one hint at the beginning of the film) just quite a cheap way to the end the feature on. To me, this action causes to completely derail the movie!

The cast in The Turning is relatively small and, while they are up to the task in playing these characters, most of them are just as bland and generic as Sisgismondi’s film. Leading the charge in the movie is actress Mackenzie Davis, who plays the film’s main protagonist character of Kate Mandell. Davis, known for her roles in Blade Runner 2049, The Martian, and Terminator: Dark Fate, has certainly made a name for herself as a good character actress, but her headlining the lead role in The Turning isn’t. How so? Well, the material given to her isn’t exactly the best, with the film’s script making Kate a rather generic / stock-like character, with very little to go on beyond the occasion worry look, frequent screams of shock / terror, and the typical super sleuthing for the truth. Davis certainly does what she can in the role, but screen presence can’t really save the character Kate Mandell from being the stereotypical the naive character figure that stumbles into haunted house with a dark secret.

Likewise, the two Fairchild children (Flora and Miles) fair a little bit better, but mostly do the acting talents by young actress Brooklyn Prince and actor Finn Wolfhard respectfully. Prince, known for her roles in Monsters at Large, The Angry Birds Movie 2, and The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, and Wolfhard, known for his roles in IT, Stranger Things, and The Addams Family, certainly get the characters, with Flora being the innocent (yet slightly mischievous) young child and Miles being the slightly disturbed (troublesome) teen. So, in that regard, the two young talents get their characters down pat. However, that’s pretty much it. The movie doesn’t offer any room for them to grow and just keeps Flora and Miles in that “status quo” state throughout the movie, which (of course) renders the character bland and boring.

Perhaps the one who shines the best (and brightest) in the movie would have to be actress Barbara Marten (Hamlet and Causality) as Mrs. Grose, the caretaker for the Fairchild Estate. Marten certainly fits the part of Mrs. Grose, a mysterious elderly woman who seems to let on more than she knows, beautifully well and every scene she is in definitely works. The rest of the supporting players, including actress Joely Richardson (Nip / Tuck and The Patriot) as Kate’s mental unstable mother, Darla Mandell, actress Kim Adis (Krypton and In Darkness) as Kate’s best friend / roommate, Rose, actor Niall Greig Fulton (Cloud Atlas and Outlaw King) as the Fairchild’s old tutor, Quint, and actress Denna Thomsen (Vessel and Service) as the Fairchild’s old nanny, Miss Jessel, frame the feature in minor capacity. Some characters are important to the story being told, but are, more or less, background nuances that never really shine beyond their initial setup, with Sisgismondi never focusing heavily on them except for a few moments here and there.

FINAL THOUGHTS


What horrifying secrets lie with the Fairchild Estate as Kate Mandell soon discovers the uneasiness of looking after the Fairchild children in the movie The Turning. Director Floria Sisgismondi’s latest film takes Henry James’s novella story and translates it for a new adaptation; projecting modern day filmmaking techniques and nuances to present a ghoulish ghost / haunted house narrative. Unfortunately, despite having an atmospheric setting and some other horror aspects, the movie hopelessly flounders its chance to drum up scares and entertainment, especially due to Sisgismondi’s lackluster direction, a formulaic plot, fragmented narrative holes, not much scary moments, mediocre performances, uninteresting / stock-like characters, and an unsatisfying ending twist. To me, I didn’t like this movie…at all. Love the film’s setting, but everything else was pretty generic and uninteresting. What could’ve been something decent narrative turns into something completely boring, bland, and unimpressive from start to finish. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is an unyielding and rock solid “skip it” as there’s little reason to watch this movie. Even if you’re a “die hard” fan of horror films…. there are fare better entries to get your “scares” on. In the end, The Turning had potential to be something worth exploring (both narratively and cinematically), but ends up just muddling its presentation; crushing its spooky haunted house premise with unsatisfying feature with a lame ending.

1.6 Out of 5 (Skip It)

 

Released On: January 24th, 2020

Reviewed On: January 28th, 2020

The Turning  is 95 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for

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