Directed By Floria Sigismondi
Starring – Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince
The Plot – A young governess (Davis) is hired by a man who has become responsible for his young nephew (Wolfhard) and niece (Prince) after the deaths of their parents. A modern take on Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw”.
Rated PG-13 for terror, violence, disturbing images, brief strong adult language and some suggestive content
– Dreadful atmosphere. This is the first step in making your horror film a success, and through the combination of visual aesthetics and technical mastery, the film’s prime setting at least does its part to set the stage for the paranormal suspense that follows. The pale color scheme inserted into the film’s cinematography creates an unnerving airborne toxic that visually conveys the grief that this house and its child occupants have faced. Likewise, the house itself is full of silent isolation, which not only illustrates its immense size, but also the direness of the governess’s situation. Cap it all off with a constant residing fog in the courtyard, and you have the ideal setting that comes to mind when we think of the horror genre. Cliche? Yes, but effective none the less.
– Occasional frights. While nothing as consistent as the best horror films of the previous year, “The Turning” at least isn’t all jump scares in its desire to thrill its audience. In this regard, it uses a fine tuning of shadow-play in the darkness, as well as manipulation in sound mixing that builds the tension naturally as it should, as well as teases the audience constantly for when the confrontation will happen. Sometimes it comes as expected, but there are a few times when the tease is for nothing more than to just wink and nod at the audience, and it cements the film’s connection to its audience that it seems to frequently put first. The jump scares are still there, sure, but nowhere near as obvious or as cluttered as January horror has prepared us for. This alone makes it a step up from the constant annoyance that was “The Grudge” from earlier this month.
– Make-up/Prosthetics. One easy to overlook aspect of the film’s production is the natural progression of Davis’ profile appearance that is put through the stressful ringer because of her time at this mansion. This is realized through the tweaking of some meaningful make-up that goes a long way in its evolution from start to finish, which in turn conveys to us the audience what can’t be fully translated in the film’s performance. This didn’t appear as obvious to me in the film’s opening few days, but after spending a week inside of its walls, her hair becomes frazzled, and her facial capacity looks like it has aged ten years in just a few days. Also impressive is the use of detailed prosthetics to shape out the many supernatural beings that are seen prominently throughout the film. In fact, there’s so little obvious computer generated influence that I give even more points to the many creative individuals that had a hand in what is easily the film’s best quality.
– Unoriginal content. So much of what makes up “The Turning” strikes up a disheartening level of familiarity that never allows it the freedom to make it truly memorable. Aside from the fact that this story is based on the 1898 ghost story “The Turn of the Screw”, which itself has produced a few big screen adaptations, Sigismondi herself seems like she has watched films like “The Shining” or “The Good Son” a bit too much, for how she unapologetically rips from these films in her own. On the latter, it’s the over-the-top manner which Wolfhard’s character is directed, as well as one scene involving a flashlight hunt throughout the house that made me question where I’ve seen this before. For the former, it’s much worse. We have practically the exact same establishing shot that “The Shining” had, as well as a hedge maze in the courtyard, Wolfhard bouncing a ball against the wall in a scene, and an area of the house that is off limits to the house occupants. I’m sure nothing was intentional, but when you’re sampling some of the best that the genre has to offer, it proves that so little original inspiration was sported in producing this latest adaptation for contemporary audiences.
– Pointless gimmick. You wouldn’t know it from the trailers, but this film is set in 1994, literally one day after the Kurt Cobain suicide. I say this because the film opens up with the news brief on Cobain’s story, and then never mentions it or uses it again anywhere in the screenplay. My problem is there being no distinct reason why this film was set in the age, both in its production props and soundtrack that don’t exactly speak volumes to the flannel grunge age of pop culture. For my money, I feel like it was done to keep cell phones out of the scenario of the house’s isolation. The problem with that theory is the house still has phones, and never in the film are they cut-off to keep any residents from calling the outside world. It’s a strange instance of direction that feels never fully realized, and could’ve had a pleasant air of familiarity if its rendering had even a single influence on the rest of the picture.
– Extreme performances. With the exception of ten-year-old Brooklynn Prince, who is once again a delightful charm of childlike innocence, the rest of the cast is tuned with the kind of subtlety of a tanker truck exploding through a gas station. Davis, who usually revels in such dramatic opportunities, never quite captures the fragility of the situation, causing everything happening around her to feel like a nuisance instead of a fight for desperation. To contrast this underwhelming, Wolfhard is easily the worst I’ve ever seen from the talented adolescent, whose deliveries are unintentionally some of the best laughs I’ve gotten cinematically in quite some time. It could be a miscasting that outlines this role as anything but natural, but Finn never feels believable as a child, in both his speech patterns and the ridiculous lines of dialogue that he is asked to give forth. He captures the attention of every scene for all of the wrong reasons, and makes it difficult to pay attention to pivotal scenes for the mean-mugging he’s constantly flashing in front of us.
– Faulty screenplay. I can overlook stupidity in characters, like Davis refusing to leave the house because of a pinkie-promise she made to Prince’s character earlier in the film, but the problems within this narrative start to stack up the closer it gets to resolving itself. For starters, it doesn’t feel like there is a second act anywhere in this film. There’s 70 minutes of introductory exposition, and then a final conflict, that’s it. What this does is create no shortage of storytelling hurdles or factual inconsistencies that it has no time to explain because it committed so much of itself to introducing new characters and subplots to the film even an hour in. Coming out of this film, I have more unanswered questions than I did answered, and it wastes so much of the 90 minute run time that should’ve been used to resolve what is persistently lingering.
– Lack of reality. Fake-out dream sequences are becoming a staple cliche in the horror genre, and “The Turning” might very well be the measuring stick for that ideal going forward. I say that because there are as many as four different ones littered throughout this film. Two of which take place in the same dream, and all of which remind us the audience how little creatively actually took place throughout the film. I can understand using this gimmick once to get one over on the audience, but doing it repeatedly not only takes so much of the investment out of a scene that should be terrifying, it also makes it so that the audience expects it once it has passed doing so for a second time.
– Predictable. It could be that every adaptation of this property has had the same twist ending, but even a person unfamiliar with the story could sniff out the direction this film was heading for its overall lack of subtlety that rears its ugly head around midway through the movie. The lack of details given for one character out of the story’s frame, as well as the further elaboration of one character in frame telegraphed the motives long before the rest of the film caught up. It makes me wish that this adaptation would’ve altered the direction slightly, especially considering the film does give the story a few outs that could’ve instilled a fresh sense of originality that this film so desperately required.
– Lasting impression. This is the area that really hurts the film, as the closing moments not only invest more in the twist instead of the satisfaction of the closure, but also doesn’t give us anything that resembles the definition of what is known as a film’s ending. After the twist is deposited, there’s a scene that feels the same as any other one in the movie, but right when it seems like it’s going to reveal something as equally terrifying, it only further confirms what the previous scene articulated. The closing credits quickly follow, and encourage those few seconds of silence in between, so that the audience can inevitably scream “What the hell was that?”. This is “Sleepaway Camp 2” levels of ending ambiguity, and only further shows that this movie never invested in the same characters that it constantly asked us the audience to.
My Grade: 3/10 or F