Runner Review: The Turning

Braden Moss-Ennis, Opinions Writer

On Jan. 23, 2020, Universal Pictures’ The Turning hit theatres in the United States. The Turning is a horror/psychological thriller based on Henry James’ 1898 horror novella, The Turn of the Screw 

  The story follows a woman named Kate (Mackenzie Davis), who is hired as a live-in teacher for an orphan child named Flora (Brooklyn Prince). Throughout the film, Kate struggles with her new job as she experiences difficulties with Flora’s brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), and begins to hear and see strange things in the estate.  

  The film marks the second major motion picture directed by Floria Sigismondi, who directed the biographical film “The Runways” in 2010, as well as a number of music videos for artists like Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, and Katy Perry. 

  This film is not the first time that James’ beloved novella has been adapted for the big screen. In 1961, British director Jack Clayton released his adaptation called The Innocents, which is now considered a classic psychological thriller by many critics and film buffs, including being ranked at number 11 on The Guardian’s list of the best horror films of all time. Later this year, the new season of Netflix’s paranormal thriller “The Haunting of Hill House” will also be based on James’ novella. 

  One way that The Turning differs from its source material, as well as Clayton’s adaptation, is through its setting and through its exploration of the main character Kate. 

  “It’s modern because not only does it take place in the mid-90s, but it sort of flips the kind of helplessness of Kate’s character. In this story, she’s a little more empowered and I think people are really going to want to see that,” said Wolfhard in an interview with ET Canada. 

  While the attempts to do something different in the film are a little admirable, The Turning is a truly baffling experience. The film’s first act starts with a lot of potential as it establishes its few characters and sets up the story. Due to the short run time of the film, as well as its fast-paced editing, the characters ultimately end up lacking the depth needed to truly care about them.  

  The film establishes that Kate’s upbringing was rough, and we get a few insights as to why, but the lack of flashbacks really made her past unimportant to a viewer. Miles is a villainous teenage boy, but in the moments the audience are intended to feel for him, they can’t because they really don’t know enough about his upbringing.  

  It would’ve been beneficial to have 10 to 15 more minutes in the film to get more background on characters like Kate and Miles to help the viewers sympathize with them more. The fast-paced nature of the film further tampers with the viewing experience by never letting the film build enough tension for a scene. It feels like Sigismondi is constantly looking for the next big scare each scene, which is disappointing because the lack of tension led to very few thrills at all throughout the film. 

  Where the film truly loses its audience though is through the character motivations and the ending of the film. A common trope in the large majority of horror films is that the main characters don’t do the logical things that an actual human being would do; The Turning is no different in this regard.  

  There is a rationale that the main character Kate has for her actions in the film that the audience is seemingly supposed to sympathize with, but ultimately makes little sense. When characters don’t act rationally in movies, it simply feels like lazy writing to advance the plot. However, the ending of the film is easily the worst part.  

  Without spoiling the film, the ending of the film doesn’t feel like an ending at all. The abruptness of the ending leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of the viewer, as it made the hour and a half that I spent watching the film feel unnecessary. 

  An open-ended movie isn’t always a bad thing, as it can allow for a lot of fun theorizing amongst fans and could lead to more viewings. Recent films like Inception, In Bruges, and The Lobster have ambiguous endings that have led to much debate amongst fans and critics alike about what truly happened. 

  “What I loved about [The Turn of the Screw] is the nature of how interpretative the material is. It’s a dark story, but you know, you can read it as a ghost story and then you could read it as a psychological story about a woman going mad and the idea of that interpretation is what I think makes it a really great framework for a visual storytelling,” said Sigismondi in an interview with Collider’s Tommy Cook. 

  Many great films have left things open-ended and up to viewer interpretation. However, the difference between films, like Inception and The Turning is that despite an open-ending, the great films still tie up enough of the story’s threads before the conclusion of the film and give enough hints to potentially steer viewers towards the answers they seek. Viewers of The Turning will be left unsatisfied because it seems like there were no answers, but instead more questions. It felt like the film was more focused on the visual storytelling that Sigismondi mentions rather than the story itself. 

  Another aspect of The Turning that was lacking was the film’s attempts to portray certain themes and messages. 

  “I thought it was an interesting time to revisit some of the themes from the book, especially along the lines of this sort of toxic male masculinity that’s transferred down between the Quint character and a young boy, and sort of how ideas and behaviors are indoctrinated into the next generation of young men and into children, and how you can stem the flow of those sorts of bad ideas,” said Davis to ET Canada. 

  The themes of toxic masculinity that Davis mentions are very evident within the film through the character of Miles. The character treats others around him poorly and behaves inappropriately towards Kate. The issue is that these themes, while prevalent, aren’t really explored thoroughly enough to say anything memorable. Again, I believe that spending more time showing the backgrounds of the characters, like going through some of Miles’ past, could have helped in preventing this.  

  Not all films need to say something, but if a film is going to attempt to explore a serious theme, I believe it needs to do it well or not at all. As a whole, The Turning is a run-of-the-mill ghost story good for two or three thrills, but when it tries to do something unique, it fails miserably. 

  I’d rate the film one out of five stars. As of Jan. 24, 2020, both fans and critics on Rotten Tomatoes have responded negatively to the film. Both critics and viewers deemed the film to be “rotten”, overall leaving the film with less than 20% of the reviews being positive.