‘The Turning’ Offers Top Performances but Falls Short With Thrills and Scares

Mackenzie Davis finds herself in a terrifying situation in “The Turning,” a gothic thriller adapted from Henry James’ 1898 novella, “The Turn of the Screw.” Davis plays Kate, a teacher who takes a job as a governess at a sprawling estate in 1994. There, she is charged with the education of Flora (Brooklynn Prince), a sweet, if somewhat mischievous, second-grader who has experienced great loss in a short period. Not only has she lost her parents in a tragic car accident, one that she witnessed, but also her previous governess, Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen), who departed suddenly without saying goodbye. With only an elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), for company, Flora almost immediately becomes attached to Kate, so much so that she makes the young woman swear to never leave her. This is a mistake on Kate’s part, as strange happenings soon make her second guess what she’s gotten herself into.

Complicating things is the arrival of Miles (Finn Wolfhard), Flora’s 15-year-old brother who was expelled from boarding school for assaulting another boy. A power struggle ensues with Kate and the young man, and she gets no help from Mrs. Grose, who balks at the suggestion that the children do even the lightest of chores, reminding Kate that they were “born into privilege.” Miles’ behavior goes beyond the usual teen rebellion shenanigans, and his own trauma has manifested into what we today would call toxic masculinity. He not only plays cruel pranks on Kate, but at one point even enters her room while she’s sleeping. Mrs. Grose blames his actions on Quint (Niall Greig Fulton), the former estate manager who died in an accident. According to her, he was a “brute,” and allegedly had a thing with Mrs. Jessel, who left behind a diary that offers Kate precious clues about this abnormal household. 

In addition to her often unruly charges, Kate has to deal with what appears to be supernatural forces haunting her. There’s also an underdeveloped subplot involving her artist mother (Joely Richardson) who’s been confined to a mental institution. All of this leads to a twist ending that isn’t very well justified. All in all, “The Turning” is too disjointed, and it relies too much on jump scares, as well as clichéd motifs such as creepy dolls, haunting landscapes and forbidden rooms.

Still, the cast does the best with the material, particularly Wolfhard, who shows signs of growing into a more mature performer. The setting of 1994, which the viewer is alerted to in the opening scene in which Kate and her roommate, Rose (Kim Adis), watch a news report of Kurt Cobain’s death, was an interesting choice on the part of director Floria Sigismondi and writers Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes. It gives the film a modern feel without the distraction of cellphones and other twenty-first century technologies. This adds to Kate’s isolation, as she has to wait until she’s off the property to make a payphone call to Rose. The angst of the nineties-style music also amplifies the darker emotions. But don’t go into the movie expecting to hear the likes of Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails — Sigismondi commissioned multiple artists, including Courtney Love, to write new songs inspired by that era and the story. So dedicated was she that she gave the artists the “diaries” of Kate and Miles, and the result is a brooding grunge soundtrack.

The Turning” opens Jan. 24 in theaters nationwide.