IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 94 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
1994; teacher Kate has been offered an opportunity to become a governess for Flora and Miles, two orphaned siblings who live inside a remote estate ran by Mrs. Grose. Saying goodbye to her mentally unstable mother, she sets off for the country house and once there tries to make a difference. Flora doesn’t seem to be too much trouble, but Miles is surly, aggressive and fancies Kate, who soon finds out that the last governess disappeared one night in a fit of panic. Then she starts to see ghosts – though could they just be a figment of her imagination?….
Top ten lists are always difficult, but I will defend to the death my belief that 1960’s The Innocents is one of the top five horror films ever made and the best ghost movie of all time. One wonders why anyone bothered making other versions of The Turn Of The Screw, but actually it seems like a hard story to cock up, going by the successive versions that I’ve seen up to now, all of which work to some degree even if they star Patsy Kensit. The mixture of Victorian ghost story and psychology even comes off well on the stage judging by the production I saw, even though it had to make do without one of the stars of all the films and TV versions; the haunted house that is Bly Manor. This particular version entered development in March 2016 and was called Haunted back then, with Juan Carlos Fresnadillo attached as director, though what excited most people was that Steven Spielberg was producing and calling it a “passion project”, leading us to think that he would be heavily involved. Three years later it was renamed The Turning with a new director in Floria Sigismondi [The Runaways and lots and lots of pop music videos that you will surely have seen] and Spielberg just executive producing and, from the looks of things, not contributing much at all. Whether you’re of the opinion that it’s a good or bad thing [Tobe Hooper would have claimed the latter] thing, you just can’t see his hand in the production, which is by far the weakest version of the Henry James novella that I’ve watched. It’s clumsy and muddled, even if you accept that anybody adapting this tale has to have in mind their own interpretation of much of what James was so oblique about, and that this interpretation might be different to yours. And, perhaps worse than that, it’s just not scary, unless you consider endless repetition of – woman hears something, woman enters room, a ghost appears suddenly – to be where it’s at in terms of screen horror. I’m happy to have it sometimes, but this film honestly does hardly anything else.
Unlike most versions, this one opens with the last nanny fleeing Bly Manor in terror before a ghostly face looms in her car in a supposed scare that barely comes off at all, and we then cut away. Those familiar with the story will know who’s ghostly face this is, and may sigh at how impatient this version is in having to show the character right at the beginning rather than building up to his first appearance. In fact impatience is partly the name of the game here, the film just having no time to make you feel uneasy, and therefore virtually removing an important dimension. We then see shots of the death of Kurt Cobain to help us identify when we are set, but the 1994 setting is odd. I guess screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes thought it best to still set the film in a still pre-digital age so that Kate was very isolated out in the countryside, but surely just using the ‘no signal’ cliche would have worked fine. Anyway, we meet our new nanny Kate along with a major addition that the Hayes brothers thought up; Kate now has a seriously mentally ill mother. It was no doubt thought that this would strengthen the possibility, common to most versions and in the novella, that the ghosts are a figment of the heroine’s imagination, and to be fair it’s nice to have a version that doesn’t suggest that the spooks are being conjured up by extreme sexual repression. But the mad mother subplot is then forgotten about for ages and therefore comes across as rather crass, and, if we’re supposed to wonder if her daughter could be going the same way, why on earth do we have a bit where a mannequin’s head turns which isn’t seen by Kate? Such a moment surely tells us that, yes, the supernatural is present.
Kate is hardly welcomed at the house, which despite the time still looks nicely old in many of the interiors. It also has a maze in the garden which, seeing as it only features in two minor scenes that could have been set almost anywhere despite us being told that it’s’ “inescapable”, must be purely because the Overlook Hotel also had one. Initially Flora is the only child there, but Miles soon turns up, having been expelled from school. The reason for this is usually not given, but here we’re told that he bashed another boy’s head against a kitchen tile. This actually works quite well in setting up Miles as more of a threat than usual. Kate starts hearing and seeing things, and one wonders why on earth she keeps going off to investigate sounds or partly glimpsed faces or figures when she surely knows that she’s going to end up very frightened. The ‘jump scare’ technique can of course work very well in films, but it’s best used sparingly, otherwise the scares tend to diminish in effect after a while. But here, after a while, I couldn’t help but make unfavourable comparisons to the way Jack Clayton handled The Innocents. The scares were sparing, but he allowed a truly creepy feel to develop, and then he let the scares sneak up on you, leaving a much stronger impression. This film even resorts to Kate sometimes verbalising a terror that is barely communicated to the viewer at all! All this being said, you do get the odd bit that does work. Kate thinking that she’s saving somebody from drowning but it actually being a prank pulled by the children is memorable, and the film does manage to pull off a slightly frightening severed hand attack – and as you’ll probably agree severed hands can’t usually help but cause laughter [whether you’re an Evil Dead 2 fan or not]. But after a while you just wish that the film would – you know – actually attempt to involve us instead of mechanically repeating the same scenario over and over again.
Without going into detail just in case anyone reading this review isn’t familiar with the story, the revelation of who the ghosts are is as expected, as is the disturbing suggestion that these children have witnessed certain things that children shouldn’t witness. However, an important change has been made to the sexual relationship in the story. Whereas it’s usually hinted at [and actually shown in the prequel The Nightcomers] to have had sado-masochistic aspects but where the woman was still a willing partner, here the woman is the victim and the man a genuine sexual predator. This could have really worked in creating much more fear for Kate, a real feeling of sexual threat, especially taking into account Miles being around too. And there is one fairly strong part-flashback moment which, while not particularly graphic, I’m surprised made it into a film which was rated ‘PG-13’ in the US [’15’ in the UK, and probably just because of this scene]. But otherwise it fails to add anywhere near as much as it ought to, and ends up just feeling like a sop to the current fad for showing toxic masculinity [yawn]. And then there’s the ending, if you can grace it with that word, which – honest to god – had two people who were sat in front of me shaking their heads at the screen. We double back to a previous point, then get a not entirely unfamiliar ‘twist’ , then have a further scene that suddenly stops. I think that there’s a difference between surprising or shocking the viewer in a manner that puts a different viewpoint on what we’ve just been watching and/or gets one thinking, and just not appearing to know how to end matters at all. Hell, I LOVE a good twist, especially if it’s dark. But all we seem to get here is incompetence, a sense of not knowing what on earth to do.
There are times when scenes appear to be cut short or are even missing. Anybody familiar with the trailer had better prepare themselves for the fact that a lot of bits from it, some of them looking quite good, don’t appear in the movie. I’m reminded of the case of the recent version of Black Christmas which was heavily hacked down to get a lower rating. Information surfaced that no less than 20 minutes had been cut from it, which is a hell of a lot and couldn’t have just been murder scenes, it must have included an entire sub plot, and maybe they shot some new footage to paper over the gaps that must have resulted. It looks very much like this is the case with The Turning too, and it’s resulted in a very frustrating viewing experience. While in recent years I’ve come to enjoy subtlety more and more in my horror [which is why I finally felt able to commence my series of Val Lewton reviews], I certainly have no problem with a version of The Turn Of The Screw that really goes into the perverse and nasty aspects that James only ever-so-slightly hinted at. But here, we have to put up with a film that sometimes feels like it’s beginning to ‘go there’, before then pulling back. It’s like being a kid and watching something with your mum or dad who doesn’t want you see certain scenes that he or she feels are too strong for you, and who therefore skip or fast forward a bit every now and again. And then we have things like Flora’s trauma of not wanting to leave the grounds. It plays a major part on a couple of occasions, but it’s never actually explained why she has this intense fear. Similar to a previous point I made, there’s a difference between asking viewers to try to work certain things out, and just not bothering to fill us in at all on seemingly important details [unless the film is obviously of a surreal nature]. I smell very heavy re-editing.
The cast do what they can. In fact Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince all play off each other very well, and Prince, who impressed in The Florida Project, really does have an engaging screen personality, while Davis and Wolfhard project a real tension in their scenes together, even though Wolfhard often doesn’t seem to be doing much – which is in a way of course the mark of a good actor. There were times when I felt sorry for the performers in this film, and I suspect that some of their best moments are on the cutting room floor. But Sigismondi doesn’t really impress as a director judging by her work here; while she knows how to exploit the unease some of us have over dolls and mannequins, she fails to make much out of the setting, and the odd moment of extreme stylisation such as pans in and out of eyes feels out of place. Much as I hate ‘shakycam’, the jittery cinematographic style of many of her pop videos might have enlivened matters. As it is, Nathan Burr’s music score sometimes seems to be working overtime to try to create the atmosphere and tension that are otherwise lacking. While her film does contain hints of what might have been [and what may have originally been shot], Sigismondi has overall achieved something that I thought to be not possible. She’s made a generally un-engaging, un-frightening film out of The Turn Of The Screw. Oh well. Hopefully Mike Flanagan will allow us to forget this weak effort with the follow-up series, based on the same story, to his very fine adaptation of The House On Haunted Hill. Over to you Mike.