It feels like The Turning is something we have seen many times before. In fact, we have seen an adaptation of Henry James’s novel, The Turn of the Screw, multiple times, including the acclaimed classic horror movie, The Innocents (1961). With the already thoroughly explored trope of haunted mansions, The Turning needed to bring something new to an already existing subgenre. Director Floria Sigismondi’s attempt feels like it is trying to do something different — but it doesn’t work.
Following an intense opening scene that inserts us in the film’s grim atmosphere, the audience is jarringly dragged right out of that mood when the film lazily, and distractingly, reveals its 1990s timeline, by playing a news report discussing Kurt Cobain’s death. We are then introduced to Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis), a well-meaning teacher, who has been called to teach a little girl who has lost her parents. Upon her arrival at the isolated mansion, it is immediately known that something is off. The caretaker of the house, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), is less than welcoming and sends Kate off to find Flora (Brooklynn Prince), the cheerful and mischievous girl Kate will be teaching. After Flora’s brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) suddenly arrives back home from boarding school, the uncomfortable atmosphere twists into something more disturbing.
Once at the mansion, the film does an adequate job of establishing the menacing, mysterious ambiance of the house. With winding corridors and creaking doors, there are endless possibilities for what could be lurking in the shadows. The subdued color palette is composed of bland colors and gray tones, and there is an excess of shadows and fog that push the gothic themes of the story. However, the setup of this eerie environment is wasted on repeated jump scares that just grow tiresome by the end of the film.
The script, sans the ending, is decent, and the actors make good use of the material. It was wonderful to see Brooklynn Prince on screen again after her surprising debut in The Florida Project. Her cheerful smile seems to always be hiding something dark and secretive. Davis is convincing in her desperation as she tries to unravel the mystery of the mansion’s history. There are many tense scenes between Kate and the two children that are extremely uncomfortable to watch, especially as the children’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbing. Unfortunately, the film drags too often to push the characters to any meaningful turns.
The pacing is the film’s most notable issue. It seems to be going for a slow-burn horror, building up its terror until a shocking finale. However, the execution fails as a result of its reliance on jump scares to build tension. After the tenth ghost appears in a mirror, and Davis screams in terror for the tenth time, the gimmick doesn’t work anymore. It is also frustrating to see our heroine go investigate every single noise she hears at night, especially as this redundancy results in nothing but another jump scare. If these scares built up the story more, or offered more complex character progression, the movie wouldn’t drag along as it did.
The music is one of the best things to come out of this film. Being set in the 1990s, you would think the movie might rely heavily on references to classic songs from that era. Instead, there are new, original songs from Courtney Love, Soccer Mommy, Mitski, and more. These moody songs fed into the dreadful climate of the film more positively than more well-known songs might have. Sadly, they are not enough to compensate for the film’s faults.
The element that The Turning fails at the most is the execution of its story. In addition to the achingly slow pacing, the film does not follow through on many of its plot points. The mysteries we discover in the mansion are unresolved, and do not add much to the plot taking place between Kate and the children. The first half of the film focuses on the relationship between the three main characters, so when the focus shifts in the second half, and offers no connection to the already established plot, the film loses its already sparse momentum. The final act only brings in more confusion that leads to a shockingly abrupt and confusing ending.
The Turning had the potential to break the stereotype of bad January releases, but it only perpetuated it. With an interesting story buried beneath poor pacing and overused jump scares, the film fails its actors, the original material, and its audience, without offering anything new or even remotely interesting.