The Turning introduces its lead character, Mackenzie Davis’ Kate, by showing her watching a TV broadcast about Kurt Cobain’s recent death. It’s only been two days since Cobain committed suicide, but this information really doesn’t serve much purpose in the film, despite showing that this latest adaptation of Henry James’ 1898 novella, “The Turn of the Screw” is set in 1994 and somewhat explains why Finn Wolfhard’s Miles tends to wear oversized sweaters and torn jeans. The Turning is full of moments like this, inexplicable decisions that serve no purpose and only muddles a story that’s already been told in so many other, better adaptations.
In The Turning, Kate is hired by an estate to be a teacher and caretaker to Flora (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince). Flora’s previous nanny disappeared without a word, and Flora’s parents died in a car accident. Flora and Kate get along well, and the dynamic between Davis and Prince is by far The Turning’s highlight. But when Flora’s brother Miles returns home after getting kicked out of boarding school, he begins to torment Kate, scaring and making uncomfortable advances towards her.
Miles supposedly had a friendship with Quint, a groundskeeper who died, yet the friendship seems to continue. Adding to the spirits that may or may not occupy the house is the former nanny and possibly Flora and Miles’ parents. Even worse, Kate’s family has a history of mental illness, as her mother (Joely Richardson) has been in an institution for years, and the estate’s maid (Barbara Marten) isn’t making Kate’s transition into this new home and saner. It’s really only a matter of time before either the spirits get Kate, her personal demons become too much to take, or some combination of both.
Directed by Floria Sigismondi, who last directed the horrid 2010 film, The Runaways, relies heavily on jump scares, few of which make much sense. There’s some undefined thing moving in a dark room, which freaks out Kate. Repeat ad nauseam. In fact, most of the “scares” within The Turning rely mostly on how intimidating and creepy the audience will find Finn Wolfhard. Is it unsettling to find him watching Kate from a distance over and over? Not really. But Sigismondi keeps coming back to this as if it is effective.
With a screenplay by The Conjuring writers Carey and Chad Hayes, The Turning is far too ambiguous for its own good. Scares don’t seem tied to anything of consequence, the spirits of the estate may or may not exist, dreams occur within dreams, and Kate’s potential loss of sanity isn’t truly an issue until the film decides all of a sudden during its twist that it most certainly is an issue. If anything, The Turning’s dumb twist only explains why not much in the films adds up anyways. By the end, The Turning ends up feeling like a lack of meaningful choices and inconsequential scares.
At the very least, The Turning’s gothic style does look quite good, and Davis, Prince, and Wolfhard are all solid in roles that don’t do them justice. But all-in-all, The Turning is a poor execution of James’ story, a vague, scare-free film that never seems to quite know what kind of story it wants to tell.