Floria Sigismondi, director of 2010 biopic The Runaways and long-time music video collaborator to Marilyn Manson and David Bowie, makes her return to the big screen with The Turning, an adaptation of Henry James’ 19th century novella ‘The Turn of the Screw.’ James’ short story has seen multiple iterations in film and television including the 1961 period-correct The Innocents. Sigismondi however looks to her own personal haven—the 1990’s, for inspiration.
Set in Spring 1994, just after the death of Kurt Cobain, we open to the news broadcast of Cobain’s suicide. Kate (Mackenzie Davis) is a teacher, clad in leather boots, satin slips dresses and a blonde shaggy bob Courtney Love would be proud of. She has recently taken on a new job as a nanny at the Fairchild estate, looking after a young girl named Flora (Brooklynn Prince), whose previous teacher Mrs. Jessel mysteriously vanished.
Unfortunately for Kate, when she arrives at the sprawling manor house (filmed on location in Ireland) it’s not just the gaunt housekeeper Mrs Grose (Barbara Marten) she has to try and impress; Flora’s older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) has returned from boarding school early. Wolfhard, with his angsty teen looks and black mop of hair, appears to be the sounding board off which Sigismondi bounces the films mood and 90s setting.
With him, Miles fetches tight-lipped secrets surrounding Flora’s previous teacher and why she disappeared, and a longing for the companionship he had with their now-deceased riding instructor, Quint—which seems to explain Miles’ hostile behaviour.
Even when she avoids Miles’ inappropriate behaviour, Kate is never let off easy and is instead plagued with visions of a ghostly woman and screams coming down the corridor every evening. Sigismondi plays these initial moments of Haunted House 101 very well, the very first jump scare is surprising, there’s freaky mannequins and a shudder-inducing pitch black game of hide and seek in the tunnels beneath the Fairchild house.
There’s a lot of these bump in the night moments though, each one less original than the last. The Turning certainly offers nothing new to the ‘haunted house’ canon, and coming from the woman who directed the video for Marilyn Manson’s ‘The Beautiful People’, I know she could do creepy when given the chance. Sigismondi does her best to reap the benefits of filming on location and the production design boosts the film to a higher level than this iteration of the story ever deserved to be. The cast are also putting the work in too, Brooklynn Prince is a standout as the cutesy, charming and terrified Flora and the industry should probably book Barbara Marten for every haunted house film ever made from here on out.
The cast try to shuffle around the problems that lay within Carey and Chad Hayes’ script (the pair were the original screenwriters back in 2016 when the project was still being produced by Steven Spielberg under the name Haunted). Their version of the story ends up mimicking the sprawling (and under-utilised) maze of the grounds with a plot that leads you down multiple confusing avenues, but with absolutely no way out in sight. James’ original novella was praised for its ambiguity but the script here falls completely flat and without intrigue. Is the house haunted? Is Kate going mad? Are the kids even alive? Is Miles really just trying to hit on Kate the whole time? Who knows?! Certainly not the writers of this movie.
With a third act that cannot even be considered completed, let alone ambiguous, the film ends with an abrupt moment of confusion and cut to black. Perhaps the film did have an ending, but an international-wide group of projectionists decided to turn the film off at the exact moment before The Turning dug itself an even deeper grave.
The Turning is in cinemas now
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here