Henry James’ classic 1898 novel The Turn of The Screw gets a modern adaptation in Floria Sigismondi’s new gothic horror The Turning. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and starring Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince, the film presents an interesting and ambitious interpretation of James’ text, but is unfortunately let down by a fairly pedestrian screenplay and a rather puzzling ending.
The year is 1994, we know this because news of grunge superstar Kurt Cobain’s untimely death is seeping out of every radio and TV-set in the land. When she is hired by Mrs Grose (a brilliant Barbara Marten) the housekeeper of a grand old home to tutor her young charges, two orphan kids named Flora (Prince) and Miles (Wolfhard), Kate is excited at the prospect of new adventures even it means leaving her ailing mother (Joely Richardson) behind.
Things take a turn for the sinister when Kate learns that the children’s former tutor Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) left the house under mysterious circumstances a few months earlier. It also soon transpires that under the influence of a former stable-hand, Miles has developed a rather mean streak which resulted in his expulsion from his private school. Stuck in the house with a malevolent spirit and two children who refuse to follow orders, Kate must decide whether it’s best to pack up and leave or stay and give the children another chance at a normal life.
Sigismondi presents a beautfully executed gothic horror that is sadly let down by one too many modern horror tropes. What first looked like a promising start, soon turns into yet another cliché-ridden narrative where jump-scares and glaring contrivances take centre stage. Frustratingly, the film does a great job in laying out a fairly convincing story, but trips up at the last hurdle by presenting a laughably predictable denouement.
In contrast, there is a lot of be admired about the decision to set the film in this period of the time, which in turn allows both Sigismondi and writers Carey and Chad Hayes to do away with the need for computers and smart phones. A device more and more horror narratives seem to be resorting to nowadays and which seems to work as a charm if in need of added peril.
Overall, this an ambitiously crafted and robustly acted adaptation which could have been so much more were it not for some glaring mistakes and a screenplay that could have benefited from a heavy rewrite and perhaps a tad more subtlety. Not a complete disaster, but nothing to write home about either.