What a shame.
For most of its 94 minute running time, THE TURNING (2020) is an atmospheric and somewhat compelling horror movie, forever on the cusp of breaking into a full-fledged ghost story, but this doesn’t happen, because the movie is done in by a terribly abrupt ending that occurs so quickly if you look down to grab that last kernel of popcorn you’ll miss it. And when you look back up you’ll be watching the end credits.
THE TURNING is based on Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw and it tells a modernized version of the story. Sort of. The events in the movie take place in 1994, though I’m not sure why. The movie doesn’t explain the significance of the film taking place in the 1990s, other than it removes cell phones from the equation which would have allowed the main character to feel less isolated, perhaps.
Anyway, the story in THE TURNING follows young school teacher Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis) who accepts a position as a nanny/governess/tutor for a young girl Flora (Brooklyn Prince) who recently lost her parents. Flora lives in a huge mansion in Maine along with her older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) and their lifelong family servant Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten).
While Flora warms up to Kate immediately, the same can’t be said for Mrs. Grose or Miles. Mrs. Grose constantly reminds Kate that the children have been born into privilege, and she continually scuttles Kate’s attempts to make the children more responsible. Miles has been expelled from his boarding school for physically attacking another student, and so Kate eyes him with suspicion, which only grows when he makes weird, aggressive and threatening remarks to her, and when she finds him in her bedroom watching her sleep.
As things grow more uncomfortable, and Kate finds herself feeling more threatened and less in control, the element of the supernatural comes in when she begins to receive messages from what she perceives to be the ghost of the previous nanny. Furthermore, there is another more belligerent spirit on the premises, one that is actively interested in doing her harm.
What’s a nanny to do? How about this: get out of the house!!!
Nah. That would make too much sense.
There’s also another part of the story that is terribly underplayed. Kate’s mother seems to be suffering from some sort of mental illness, which is never clearly defined, and there are hints that it’s possible that Kate suffers from the same malady, which would add the element to the plot of whether the supernatural occurrences were all in her head. And the way this movie ends, the implication seems to be that this is what the filmmakers were going for. However, it’s not developed at all, and so this part of the story, while having some potential, doesn’t really come to fruition.
Neither does the movie as a whole.
Director Floria Sigismondi takes full advantage of both the creepy interior of the mansion and the haunting exterior of the surrounding gardens on the estate. In terms of atmosphere, THE TURNING has plenty of it, and for the most part, this is what kept me into the film. It looks good and there’s an unsettling feeling which permeates most of the narrative.
THE TURNING also features effective acting performances by its three leads. I really enjoyed Mackenzie Davis as new nanny Kate Mandell. She’s a strong young woman, but both Miles and the supernatural occurrences get inside her head to the point where she’s slowly tortured and really begins to doubt herself. Davis successfully captures the journey the character takes down the road of darkness. Davis has enjoyed a slew of prominent roles recently, in films like TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019), TULLY (2018) and BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017). I’ve enjoyed her in all these movies, and here in THE TURNING she’s playing a much more vulnerable character than she’s played previously.
Young Brooklyn Prince who was so memorable in THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017) is equally as good here as Flora.
But the performance of the movie for me belongs to Finn Wolfhard from STRANGER THINGS fame. As Miles, Wolfhard delivers an unsettling performance which gets under the audience’s skin just as he gets under Kate’s. And it’s understated. It’s not full-fledged teen creepy by any means. He goes back and forth between sinister and innocent, between “I’m going to attack you in your sleep” to “I’m really trying to deal with my own personal demons.” Wolfhard was also very good in the two recent IT movies, but I enjoyed him even more here.
So, even though this one is getting deplorable reviews, for me, with the atmosphere and the acting performances, I was enjoying it. It was holding my interest for nearly two thirds of the way in, and even as it built to a climax, it still was better than critics were giving it credit for, but alas, it’s all for naught, because the ending is a disaster.
Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes wrote the screenplay, and these are the same folks who wrote THE CONJURING (2013) one of the better horror movies of the past ten years. Here, they do a good job telling the main story of the dynamic between Kate and the children, but stumble once the supernatural elements enter the tale. And that’s because it’s around this time that I started wondering if this was real or inside Kate’s head? And the film doesn’t address this.
And the ending only adds to the confusion, because it definitely implies a connection between what was happening and Kate’s mother’s condition. But it does it in such a quick abrupt way that it doesn’t work.
It’s so quick it feels as if the filmmakers just ran out of money and forgot to add the last scene. It’s one of the weakest endings I’ve seen to a movie in a long time, which is too bad, because what came before it, wasn’t as bad as some folks are saying.
That being said, taken as a whole, I can’t really recommend THE TURNING. In spite of the promise it holds throughout, it just doesn’t— turn out that well.