Review: ‘The Turning’ (2020), starring Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince and Joely Richardson

January 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mackenzie Davis and Brooklynn Prince in “The Turning” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

“The Turning” (2020)

Directed by Floria Sigismondi

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional Maine suburb, the predominantly white cast of characters represent people from the middle and upper classes.

Culture Clash: A supernatural ghost story, the main plot centers around a young live-in nanny who is being terrorized in a haunted house, and the two spoiled children under her care might or might not have something to do with it.

Culture Audience: “The Turning” will appeal primarily to horror fans who want a movie that doesn’t get too graphic in its violence, but the story leaves a lot to be desired in pacing and structure.

Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince in “The Turning” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)

Some people might say that we’re living in a golden age of horror films, because of the horror genre’s resurgence in popularity. But long after movie studios keep churning out more predictable horror flicks, “The Turning” will be a forgotten mishap not even worthy of a footnote in movies about menacing ghosts and haunted houses.

“The Turning” (directed by Floria Sigismondi and written by identical twins Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes) takes place in 1994, so smartphones and the Internet aren’t going to be used as resources to get the characters out of danger. “The Turning” is based on the Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw,” which is a classic work of art that “The Turning” never will be. There is no mysterious uncle in the movie, as there is in the novella, and the movie takes place in Maine (instead of England), but the basic plot remains the same.

Viewers know that “The Turning” takes place in 1994, because in one of the first scenes, there’s a newscast on TV about the upcoming memorial for Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana lead singer who died a few days earlier, according to the newscast. The TV is in the apartment home of 20-something Kate Mandell (played by Mackenzie Davis), who’s moving out because she’s quit her job as a schoolteacher to take a job as a live-in nanny to an elementary-school-aged girl named Flora Fairchild (played by the precocious Brooklynn Prince), who’s a rich orphan living in a remote mansion called the Bly estate. Kate’s roommate Rose (played by Kim Adis) doesn’t want her to go, but Kate has made up her mind, because as she says to Rose, she’d rather be responsible for one possibly unruly kid instead of classroom full of them.

The opening scene of “The Turning” shows a terrified blonde trying to escape from the mansion by car. We find out later who that woman was, but for the time being, Kate is blissfully unaware of the terror waiting for her. As Kate drives to the foreboding mansion for her first day on the job, the first plot hole appears, because based on her awestruck reactions, it’s the first time she’s ever been to the mansion. Even if Kate was hired through an agency, it’s still makes Kate look less-than-smart to not see for herself where she’d be living and working before she took the job. Now that it’s been established that Kate isn’t the brightest bulb in the drawer, since she’s taken a live-in job without ever visiting the place beforehand, the story moves on to her making even more illogical decisions.

When she arrives at the mansion, she’s greeted by the grim and uptight house manager Mrs. Grose (played by Barbara Marten), who tells Kate something that would give pause to any person with common sense: Flora must never leave the family property. Kate is presumably supposed to be Flora’s home-school tutor, but the movie never shows Kate doing any teaching or even asking about Flora’s curriculum.

And then Kate gets a surprise when she finds out that she has to take care of not only Flora but also her troubled 15-year-old bother Miles (played by Finn Wolfhard, who’s best known for his roles on Netflix’s “Stranger Things” series and Warner Bros. Pictures’ “It” movies). Kate unexpectedly meets Miles when he startles her during his visit home from boarding school. Miles is every bit of the rude, insolent creep that he appears to be. He likes to play mean-spirited pranks on Kate and sneak up on her while she’s sleeping. It isn’t long before Miles comes home to stay permanently, because he’s been expelled from school for viciously assaulting a fellow student, by choking the boy and bashing his head into the ground. The kid’s parents have declined to press charges, which is why Miles hasn’t been arrested.

Even after Kate gets this information, she still stays. Mrs. Grose, the ultimate toxic enabler, makes excuses for Miles, and constantly reminds Kate that Miles and Flora are “thoroughbreds” and “privileged” and deserve to catered to by “the help.” She scolds Kate when Kate tries to discipline the kids in a reasonable way. It’s also obvious that Mrs. Grose knows a lot of the estate’s dirty secrets.

Throughout the course of the movie, Kate learns that several other nannies have quit and that three people have died on the property in the past few years: Miles and Flora’s parents (who died in a car accident) and Peter Quint, the horse-riding instructor, who died under mysterious circumstances. (Quint, who is seen in flashbacks and in photos, is played by Niall Greig Fulton.)

Mrs. Grose tells Kate that Quint was a bad influence on Miles (they would disappear together for hours), and Quint had some kind of sexual relationship with Miss Jessell (played by Denna Thomsen), the nanny who had the job before Kate did. The relationship ended badly, and Miss Jessell abruptly disappeared. Quint died shortly after the disappearance. Kate discovers Miss Jessel’s journal that reveals Quint had an unhealthy obsession with Miss Jessel and she was terrified of him. Even after getting all of these warning signs, Kate still stays. And she finds out the hard way what a mistake that is.

“The Turning” is director Sigsmondi’s return to helming feature films after a 10-year absence. (Her previous feature was the little-seen and underrated rock music biopic “The Runaways,” which was such a flop when it was released in March 2010, it was one of the reasons why its independent distributor Apparition went out of business a month after the movie’s release.) Sigismondi, who started her directing career with music videos and has been working mainly in television for the past several years, gets all the visual elements of “The Turning” right, for what could have been an intriguing ghost story. Kudos should also be given to the movie’s cinematography (by David Ungaro), the production design (by Paki Smith) and art direction (by Nigel Pollock), for creating a convincing atmosphere of horror and doom.

But it’s all wasted on a subpar screenplay that ruins the movie. The movie’s pacing also does little to build suspense. Kate has frightening encounters with the ghosts fairly early on in the story, but every time it happens, she has the same reactions: She screams, she blames the kids, and she decides to stay. It becomes too repetitive and ultimately annoying. There are also aspects of the story that could have been interesting but are instead dangled in front of the audience and never fully explained. For example, viewers will get no clear answers for why Flora isn’t supposed to leave the property and why she has a panic attack if she thinks she’s going to be forced to leave.

The actors do a very competent job with the problematic script that they’ve been given. Davis doesn’t have much to work with in portraying Kate’s personality or intelligence, because Kate is a very underdeveloped character who keeps making bad decisions. As Flora Fairchild, talented actress Prince, who had a breakout film debut as a foul-mouthed brat in 2017’s “The Florida Project,” is playing another girl who’s wise beyond her years while still maintaining child-like innocence in some ways. Wolfhard’s Miles Fairchild is obviously the more sinister sibling, and his sociopathic creepiness is actually more disturbing than some of the predictable scares that the ghosts inflict on Kate.

On a side note, it’s always kind of amusing to see these haunted houses suddenly have lights that don’t work, because the protagonists inevitably end up in dark rooms where they don’t/can’t/won’t turn on the lights. And if they’re using a flashlight or a candle to see, the flashlight or candle usually gets dropped when the inevitable ghost scare happens.

The Hayes brothers’ screenplay for “The Turning” really is the movie’s weakest link, which is such a letdown, since they’re capable of writing much better ghost-story horror movies. (Their screenwriting credits include “The Conjuring,” “The Conjuring 2” and “Annabelle.”) Most horror movies about haunted houses have to explain why the people in those houses don’t just move out after it becomes unsafe to live there. The reason is usually because they’ve bought the house and they recently moved into the house, so they’re already invested in staying. Moving out abruptly without another place to live could be an expensive mistake for them.

Back when the “The Turn of the Screw” was published in 1898, women didn’t have very many options on what they could do with their lives and where they could live. But it’s 1994 in “The Turning,” and Kate certainly has plenty of options that she foolishly doesn’t take. (Such as: Leave and get another job.) Another option, which most people in haunted houses do in horror movies, is to go to the authorities or consult with a spiritual expert to get rid of the ghosts. Kate does none of that, and as things get more dangerous for her, she still stays.

However, since Kate doesn’t own the mansion, and they’re clearly not paying her enough for her to justify staying, it doesn’t make sense that Kate stays as long as she does when she starts seeing ghosts, she gets locked into rooms, and she’s assaulted by mysterious forces. The movie gives a weak explanation for Kate staying: In a phone conversation, she tells her former roommate Rose (who practically begs Kate to quit the job and move back in with her) that she doesn’t want to leave because she made a promise to Flora to never abandon her, and Kate doesn’t want to emotionally damage the child. (It doesn’t cross Kate’s mind that the kid could afford to get a good therapist.)

You see, Kate has her own abandonment issues, because her father left Kate and her mother Darla (played by Joely Richardson) when Kate was a child. Darla has been in a psychiatric institution for several years (there’s a scene where Kate visits her there but Kate doesn’t stay long), and Darla might or might not have psychic powers that most people think are delusions. Kate has some hangups about possibly inheriting Darla’s mental illness and being perceived as crazy, which is the movie’s way of explaining why Kate doesn’t get help or report all the bizarre and dangerous things that keep happening to her on the Bly estate.

Darla likes to draw her visions, and she shows her artwork to Kate. The artwork is explained toward the end of the movie, which concludes in such a disappointing way, that it’s bound to confuse and frustrate viewers. (At the screening I attended, a lot of people gasped in disgust at the ridiculous ending.) “The Turning” is one of those movies that has a misleading trailer that makes the film look a lot better than it actually is. Just like a dimwitted person who knowingly stays in a haunted house after being attacked by ghosts, viewers should know what they’re getting into with “The Turning” and experience it at their own risk.

Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures released “The Turning” in U.S. cinemas on January 24, 2020.