Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning is a ghost story that is strangely unoccupied with its own ghosts, leaving behind a fragmented, meandering narrative that doesn’t as much fall apart as fails to come together in the first place. Loosely adapted from Henry James’ classic gothic horror story The Turn of the Screw, the movie follows former primary teacher Kate (Mackenzie Davis) as she accepts a job as a live-in tutor in a labyrinthine mansion, which is riddled with a horror-movie appropriate number of uncanny dolls and mannequins. Soon enough, ghostly apparitions start appearing inside the villa and
Kate is forced to question her sanity as she learns about the disturbing events that happened to her predecessor.
The Turning’s fundamental and fatal flaw is that it is about nothing. Kate spends the majority of the film wandering through the halls of the mansion whilst encountering various uninspired jump scares, and even these feel underplayed and lethargic. Her troubled relationship with her predatory pupil Miles (Finn Wolfhard, who, after an extensive career in 80s horror in Stranger Things and It, has finally graduated to 90s horror), is initially built up as a source of threat, yet nothing ever comes of it.
Similarly, Brooklynn Prince as Flora is endlessly charming and endearing in her sophomore role after her breakout success in The Florida Project, but she is chronically underused. By the time The Turning ends, one is hard-pressed to say what, if anything, happened during its runtime.
The film is at its best when it hints at some style underneath its thick veneer of horror movie clichés. It is no surprise that a newsreel of Kurt Cobain’s death is one of the few contextual cues given to the film’s time period; The Turning’s soundtrack is filled with moody alt-rock songs from legends like Courtney Love to indie darlings like Girl in Red and Mitski. If one thing can be said about The Turning, is that it is a pretty bad vehicle for some pretty good songs. These tracks also represent what the film could have been with a bit of boldness; if 80s horror has been oversaturated in the past few years, then grungy 90s horror is more than ripe for a revival. But again the film cannot commit, floundering between its heavy-handed gothic setting and its edgy 90s vibes.
Ambiguity is at its most horrific when it makes us question our fundamental assumptions about the world, when it suggests that cause-and-effect are illusions and that chaos and cruelty rule. In Henry James’ original novella, ambiguity and disorientation are used to a haunting effect, leaving the reader questioning what traumatising events really occurred to its protagonist. The Turning is plenty
ambiguous, but only in its utter lack of commitment to any concepts, visuals or narrative, making for a strenuous and frustrating watch.
[Amelie Voges – she/her – @amelieleav]