What do serial killer Ed Gein and 1898’s horror novella, “The Turn of the Screw” have in common? Both have been named as inspirations for a slew of loosely related horror movies. “The Turn of the Screw,” is the chosen inspiration for many haunted house tales, but The Turning is certainly one of the closer adaptations.
Kate (Mackenzie Davis) has been shipped off to a Victorian home, sometime in the 1990s, for her new job as tutor, or maybe it’s as nanny, to Flora (Brooklynn Prince), a scared little girl living with her caregiver, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), in the estate left by her deceased parents. Flora’s brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), unexpectedly returns home when he gets expelled from boarding school, and Kate must manage caring for a scared young girl, her creepy brat of an older brother, the eccentric caretaker, and a spooky estate with secrets in its walls.
As things start to unravel inside the house, so does Kate, building her up to becoming a less than functional tutor desperately seeking an exit strategy, or simply, a break from the leering Miles. It’s scary, creepy, warm, and riddled with narrative issues.
The best way to describe this films problems is to label it all “flimsy.” The premise of Kate giving up her life to move to the estate is flimsy, flimsy is her reason to not leave the estate when things go awry, flimsier still is her mother’s illness and how it affects her. Even more flimsy? The reasons, motivations, and defined powers of the ghosts.
But the film doesn’t rely on story to be what it is; Floria Sigismondi, first-time feature director, who is more known for her work on music videos, is one for the aesthetic, and The Turning is in no way her exception. It’s moody and beautiful, with stunning shots of the estate (maybe a few too many by drone), gorgeous costumes, and well-staged spooks and visual scares that showcase what the graphic medium can do. Taking this film for its visuals is to do yourself a service, because it truly is beautiful and spooky, even if its plot is as sheer as an apparition. I’m still attempting to reconcile if the poorly times jump scares were a brave new adaptation of the trope or just poorly delivered.
Davis truly gives this role her all, and since most of the film happens in her face, it certainly raises it up. Her subtlety is as well-executed as her outbursts, and it’s the thread of her performance that holds it all together. As much as it can be held together. The Turning has so many ideas that seem to have gotten lost somewhere between shooting and editing. There are a couple of unexplored themes that pay off too much, making them all the more, well, flimsy. It’s hard to buy the twists, and even harder to feel satisfied by them. The setups were there, and there were a lot of places the film could have gone, and the way it veers feels like it might have been shot to go anywhere, and edited in a way that leaves you still reacting to questions asked a few minutes earlier. It’s unfortunate because there’s otherwise a lot buried in there, but the best way to enjoy it is to be willing to see past that. It’s a big ask to expect a viewer to look through a poorly executed narrative to see the beauty of the visuals, but I’d call it a worthy exercise in this case.
As a visually stunning haunted house story lead by a strongly acted lead, it feels on par with films like Mama in that you’ll want to look past unexpected bonkers conclusions to remember the unsettling aesthetic it delivered throughout.
Not without its narrative issues, The Turning is an otherwise well-executed haunted house story that manages to be beautiful and truly unsettling.