The Turning Review

Terrible PG-13 horror movies in January are just the worst annual tradition the industry universally partakes in. It’s like garbage day, and critics are the waste collectors. But have you ever put an especially foul bag out on the curb and felt a twinge of mercy for the soul who has to handle it next? This year, The Turning is that bag, and it smells like a rotted corpse from a long-gone era somehow just freshly soiled itself.The Turning takes liberties in adapting Henry James’ hotly debated novella The Turn of the Screw, first printed in 1898, adding elements that at first seem contemporary…before lighting a match to them, maniacally laughing as they dissolve into ash. Director Floria Sigismondi’s mercifully only 95-minute film follows the same basic plot, though set in the 1990s, a creative choice seemingly made only to avoid modern technology. New nanny Kate (Mackenzie Davis) is assigned to a gothic estate in the middle of nowhere to take care of young orphan Flora (Brooklynn Prince). But things turn sour when Flora’s brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) returns home after getting expelled from boarding school.

Doors creek, lights flicker, and mirrors reveal lurking creatures. There’s nothing new Sigismondi or screenwriting brothers Chad and Carey W. Hayes add to the haunted house of it all, and the first act is especially dreadful as it rushes through the setup and leaps right into the jump scares without any slow down to build tension. Here, loud noises blasting through the theater’s speakers in unscary scenes are akin to the laugh track of an unfunny sitcom. Sometimes you may catch yourself lurching in your seat, but the feeling immediately after is empty, and then the film starts setting up the next loud bang, and so forth. But worst of all, the story that the scares are a part of is rendered boring because of the rush it’s in to get to the genre’s “good stuff.”

With no real reason to latch onto Kate in the script, Davis is relegated to a routine scream queen, a crime against her remarkable talents in and of itself. Prince and Wolfhard, on the other hand, fare a bit better, the former able to adorably charm her way through a scene here and there, and the latter a genuinely compelling villain with mountains of potential the story eventually changes its mind on.

There’s a partly interesting half-hour in the middle, though it remains poorly executed, with set-pieces edited to avoid bad special effects, as if watching an early episode of Lost. What elevates this material, however, is that Kate starts to suspect that the ghost haunting her, the house, and the kids is a former male caretaker who raped and murdered the woman previously in Kate’s job. Adding a rape element to a poorly made and told horror flick may sound like trouble (and it sure is by the end), but for a while, the story starts to thematically tie this caretaker’s influence onto Miles’ own aggression and forceful approach with Kate. He makes creepy comments to his sister’s nanny, and often finds himself in her room unannounced, or even while she’s sleeping. The Turning seems to be heading into territory that would have to decide whether a young man corrupted by the ways of an elder can be saved by a fresh, kinder influence.This brief tangent even gives rise to the film’s only truly worthwhile horror sequence, in which a severed hand crawls all over a mortified Kate, a not-so-subtle but nonetheless clever enough metaphor for having unwanted human hands all over you. It’s a genuinely creepy sequence that works despite how poorly the hand itself is rendered.

And then, these ideas just disappear with an asinine third-act twist that alters the truth of the entire story before it. Questions of sanity come to fruition and negate the themes of sexual assault that were just on the brink of being explored. Putting those two conflicts next to each other is dangerous, and The Turning absolutely makes the wrong move, jettisoning it into a story that (perhaps unintentionally) gives a hateful, regressive message about the truths of our present. The Turning would still be a bad movie had it gone through with what it was setting up, but at least its badness would be well-intentioned. Instead, what we got feels like a ghost of the past, rearing its ugly head where it’s no longer welcome. The residual effects are disgusting, and stink to the high heavens.

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