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Friday, January 24, 2020

The Turning

Henry James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw has been adapted numerous times, most famously in 1961 as The Innocents.  Now here is The Turning, which updates the story to 1994 for no particular reason, buries the plot in musty old spook house cliches, and caps things off with an ending that cannot be deciphered.  As a conclusion, the ending that the filmmakers reach here is barely coherent, and is likely to leave audiences groaning with bewilderment and disappointment.

Like a lot of releases we've had this month so far, The Turning has taken a longer than planned journey to the screen.  Shot back in 2018, the film was originally set to hit theaters early last year, but had its release pulled without any real information given.  Most likely, much like last weekend's Dolittle, Universal Studios knew they had a turkey on their hands.  The movie is not unwatchable in any way, and never raised any anger within me except for the awful final few minutes.  It's just that for most of its roughly 95 minutes, the movie is all atmosphere and build up that never goes anywhere.  Director Floria Sigismondi (a veteran music video director) gives us a sprawling Gothic mansion equipped with multiple rooms that, for reasons unexplained, are loaded almost top to bottom with broken dolls and creepy mannequins.  I kept on waiting for the movie to actually do something with these props, but aside from an unsuccessful jump scare regarding one of the doll's heads suddenly moving, it never does.  They're just there to look creepy, almost as if they think they're scarier than they actually are.

The plot focuses on Kate (Mackenzie Davis), a teacher who decides to take on a live-in nanny and teacher job for two kids who live alone in an isolated manor home with only their shady and elderly housekeeper (Barbara Marten) for company after their parents were killed in a car accident.  This house seems to have had a lot of accidents happen around it, as Kate discovers after she takes on the job.  At first, she thinks she's only going to have to look after the young daughter, Flora (Brooklyn Prince, giving the best performance in the film), as the teenage son Miles (Finn Wolfhard) is away at boarding school.  But then, Miles is expelled and forced to come home after he violently beat up one of the other kids at school.

This Miles is a real piece of work as horror movie "bad seed" kids go.  He's rude, acts entitled, is always playing his music too loud, and likes to play mean-spirited pranks on Kate.  But is there something more sinister than the kid merely being a brat at hand?  Whenever he's alone with her, he starts acting inappropriately, almost like a cold and calculating adult who is stalking Kate.  Not only that, but she starts seeing what appears to be phantom faces in the mirrors and windows, as well as the usual unexplained midnight sounds and doors opening by themselves that come with the haunted house territory.  There are other questions that the movie raises.  Is this all in Kate's head, due to her deteriorating sanity being stuck in this spooky old house?  Does it have anything to do with her mother (the talented Joely Richardson, given nothing to do) being locked away in an asylum?  And why does little Flora seem so afraid to venture beyond the gates that lead out of the property?

If you want answers, you're going to have to look very deep in the narrative or possibly make your own explanations, as The Turning answers little.  If you've read the original story or seen any of the many previous adaptations, you'll have a better idea, but still will find this to be a very confused telling of the story.  I get that we're supposed to wonder if the hauntings are real, or if Kate is imagining it all as she slowly slips into a state that resembles madness.  But even if the movie expects us to come to our own conclusion, it needs to throw us a bone.  And when the answers do seem to be coming, it suddenly swerves hard into incoherence in the final moments.  What are we supposed to think?  Did the screenwriters even have a clue as to how to end this?  Was the movie even finished in the first place?  Given the nature of the conclusion and how abrupt it is, I almost have to wonder.

This is a movie that plays out as a standard ghost story for the most part, with some potentially spooky settings and atmosphere that become repetitive when you realize the film's not really going to exploit most of it.  But all the shadowy hallways lined with broken dolls won't save you when the film fails to explain the point it was trying to make.

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