[Review] The Turning Is A Confusing Stinkfest to the Very End

With most of the award season films already released and no real big money box office tent poles scheduled to come out until at least March, movie studios have always treated January and February as the dumping grounds for films they don’t have much confidence in. Maybe they’ve been sitting on a shelf gathering dust for a few years or they’re so cheaply made that a minimum box office return will still be a profit. There could be contractual obligations that are forcing them into theaters or some Machiavellian mogul maneuverings behind the scenes, or it could be something far less sinister behind it all, but a lot of the movies released this time of year, to be blunt, stink.

The Turning… it needs to be said… stinks.

Directed by Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways), The Turning is a loose interpretation of the 1898 horror novella The Turning of the Screw by Henry James about a governess who gets hired to watch over two creepy children at an old estate that she soon starts to believe is haunted. It’s been turned into an opera and ballet, a stage play and about half a dozen movies. Even if you’ve never read the original book, it’s basic plot of a young woman going crazy in a creepy old mansion is ubiquitous to genre film fans.

With such a familiar outline, it’s up to the creative forces behind any new interpretation of the James’ tale to come up with an original twist or artistic flair to separate it from the herd. Failing that, they should at least infuse their project with enough energy to keep audiences from guessing too soon what will happen next. Sigismondi does neither. There’s nothing original in her staging of the story, and her few attempts at artistic flair, such as the jittery camera work she uses as a visual language for a few ghostly interactions between the governess and the evil she thinks is stalking her, adds nothing but a distraction.

Unfortunately, those jittery distractions are about the only excitement the film generates in its 94-minute running time. There are a few jump scares, but they won’t make you jump or be scared. There’s plenty of time spent trying to make the two kids in the film, played by Finn Wolfhard (It: Chapter 1, Stranger Things) and Brooklyn Prince (The Florida Project), seem creepy, but after a few dozen closeups of the kids looking weird but not doing much else, the creepy becomes commonplace. And about two-thirds of the film is devoted to making star Makenzie Davis, the kick-ass action hero of Terminator: Dark Fate, look scared. At best she looks anxious and confused. Maybe it’s because it’s just about all the film gives her to do, or maybe it’s because Davis is just better at being the hero in Dark Fate than the victim in The Turning, but it’s a look she doesn’t pull off at all.

Or it could be the hair. Davis’ character, Kate Mandell, has one of the worst hairstyles to be captured on film in recent memory. (That could, of course, be a matter of personal taste, but this reviewer found her shaggy blonde bowl-cut distracting to the point of overpowering anything else about her performance.)

All issues of style aside, though, it is the lack of substance that makes The Turning so tedious. Besides the shakey ghost camera and the bad haircut, there is nothing new and exciting, or even familiar but interesting, about The Turning. Not only is the plot familiar, but just about every scene in the movie is, too, from the classroom confrontations — an odd phrase since Davis’ character never really teaches a class — to the ‘kills’, there is a suffocating sense of deja vu permeating every frame of Sigismondi’s film. And if you’ve seen it before, why sit through it again.

  • John Black, The Turning
John Black
John Black still remembers his first horror movie, sneaking in to a double-feature of Horror House with Frankie Avalon and a Boris Karloff film he can’t remember the name of but will always remember for giving him his first glimpse of cinematic nudity as one of the actresses moved from the bed to the door without putting on any underwear! (Fond family memory: That glimpse, when discovered by his parents, cased John’s mom to call the theater and yelling at the manager for letting her son see ‘such filth’.) Luckily, John was more impressed by the blood and horror than the bare haunches and quickly became a devotee of the genre.

John has been a professional movie reviewer since 1987, when his first review – of a Robert De Niro film called Angel Heart – appeared in the entertainment section of The Cape Codder newspaper. He’s been writing about film ever since, primarily now as the entertainment editor at Boston Event Guide. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t watch at least one movie, which is how he thinks life was meant to be.