Henry James almost rivals Stephen King in the sheer number of adaptations of his works. I did a quick count, and the number easily passes two dozen. 'The Turn of the Screw' alone has been the basis for nine films in various languages, plus two stage plays, an opera and two separate ballets!
With 'The Turning', director Floria Sigismondi and executive producer Steven Spielberg has taken a stab at Henry James' aforementioned classic 1898 novella, which is once again experiencing a bit of a moment - it also serves as the basis for Mike Flanagan's upcoming 'The Haunting of Bly Manor' on Netflix. The ghostly 19th century tale centers on a governess who slowly loses her mind while caring for the children of nobles - that, or the remote country estate where she lives and works is haunted. It's easy to see the appeal of the material for Spielberg, who's produced supernatural films before.
For her version, Sigismondi ('The Runaways') has recruited Mackenzie Davis to play Kate Mandel, a nanny enlisted to care for a pair of very pale children, Flora (Brooklynn Prince, 'The Florida Project') and Miles (Finn Wolfhard, 'It'). Before she can head out of town, she has to swing by a mental health facility to say goodbye to her mum (Joely Richardson, 'Color Out of Space'). I know that standards for residential mental healthcare are constantly evolving, but I'm pretty sure that the facility wouldn't have allowed her mother to spend her days unsupervised, making huge charcoal drawings in the bottom of a drained (and stylishly tiled) swimming pool.
Anyway, Kate drives to a sprawling, isolated estate and meets the severe-yet-all-too-forgiving caretaker, Mrs Grose (Barbara Marten), who believes the children to be "thoroughbreds" and beyond any and all reproach. The longer Kate stays in the giant Fairchild manor, which is clearly haunted as fuck, the creepier these kids get.
Oh yeah, the story is now set in 1994. Scott McGehee and David Siegel shifted Henry James' 1897 novel, 'What Maisie Knew', into the 21st century and turned it into a contemporary story about a custody battle over a child during a divorce. In 'The Turning', it's purely an excuse to feature Nirvana and Hole on the (admittedly terrific) soundtrack.
Sigismondi's film aspires to be one part psychological drama, one part classic gothic haunted house story, but it really only partially succeeds as the latter. Jack Clayton's 'The Innocents' is the best adaptation of James' novella - it's a faithful 1961 adaptation starring Deborah Kerr, with a screenplay by famed author Truman Capote. Whereas 'The Turning' has some beautifully spooky cinematography via David Ungaro - the estate is drenched in the sort of dusty, forgotten elegance that instantly gives it character - and a truly awful script by 'The Conjuring' duo Chad and Carey W. Hayes.
With 'The Turn of the Screw' novella, many critics have wondered if the "strange and sinister" were only in the governess' mind and not part of reality. The result has been a longstanding critical dispute about the reality of the ghosts and the sanity of the governess. Beyond the dispute, critics have closely examined James' narrative technique for the story. The framing introduction and subsequent first-person narrative by the governess have been studied by theorists of fiction interested in the power of fictional narratives to convince or even manipulate readers.
Rather than tease a supernatural presence, Sigismondi reveals it immediately, opening on the ghost of the manor's former groundskeeper, Quint - a blurry spectre with long hair - snatching up the former nanny, Miss Jessel. Unlike Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's 'The Lodge', there will be no ambiguity about whether the supernatural shenanigans are real or imagined, nor any suspense about where the story might be going.
That's an intriguing setup for a traditional horror film. Perhaps Sigismondi will make something of it? The surplus of spiders, decapitated dolls and unsettling antique mannequins nicely complement the film's bold use of darkness and muted colors. Then the ghosts turn up again. 'The Turning' gets its scares on the cheap, relying on hoary tricks like haggard faces popping out of the unfilled spaces behind characters, creepy kids making "shush" gestures, and underscoring the jolts with obnoxious "gotcha" noises. It's the laziest sort of scary... 'The Conjuring' kind of scary. I discussed this formula at great length in my review of 'The Nun', and don't need to rehash it again here.
'The Turning' has some beautifully spooky cinematography via David Ungaro - the estate is drenched in the sort of dusty, forgotten elegance that instantly gives it character - and a truly awful script by 'The Conjuring' duo Chad and Carey W. Hayes.
It's a shame the script wasn't written by someone more skilled and nuanced, because they could have explored so much more of the ghosts and the children's suggested trauma. Miles' relationship with the horny Quint, Quint's horny influence/corruption on Miles, Flora's inexplicable fear of leaving the grounds, Kate's neglect and abandonment issues, the possible mental abuse from her mother... so much was set up and teased, but never fully explored.
One of the best ways to amuse yourself while watching 'The Turning' is to pick out the reshoots that have been clumsily cobbled onto the original movie. I'm guessing that film originally began with Kate driving to the Fairchild estate and that everything involving her breakdown was added in later - 'The Turning' feels like a smattering of jump scares and audio stingers mixed with seemingly random, abrupt reminders that Kate apparently has some family history with mental illness.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the finale. There are a lot of elements that need to come together in just the right way in order for a horror flick to really work. But even if the scares are a bit stale, the pacing is off, or the tension isn't entirely consistent, a good twist or an immensely cathartic ending can make up for quite a bit. Conversely, a bad ending can completely ruin the entirety of the film leading up to it, regardless of quality. 'The Turning' has an all-time bad ending that gives the impression that everyone involved simply said "man, fuck this shit" and went home.
On the plus side, all of the actors do what is required of them and try to elevate the material. Mackenzie Davis and Brooklynn Prince play off each other very well. Barbara Marten is creepy. It's a breath of fresh air when Finn Wolfhard, appropriately insinuating, joins the haunted house party after his boarding school boots him for strangling another student. These actors deserved a better vehicle for their talents.
Can a horror movie get by on nothing but atmosphere, on the je ne sais quoi of its unsettling mood? Sure, just take a look at Oz Perkins' 'I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House'. And Lenny Abrahamson's brilliantly underrated 'The Little Stranger' is barely a horror movie at all - it's more of an impeccably crafted chamber drama with a supernatural bent. These films prove that there's room in the world for this sort of old-dark-house story. But, as we see with 'The Turning', making scares stick means more than just building a spook house, dropping a few spiders inside, shoving audiences through the door, and hoping for the best.