When I see a movie as confounding as The Turning – Floria Sigismondi’s long-delayed adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw – I immediately turn toward process. I want to know what went wrong, and, going even further back, how it got made. That’s just how my mind works. All of these things – the plot (in 1994, a young school teacher takes a job as a live-in nanny for orphaned children and quickly suspects their mansion might be haunted), shot construction (a series of gothically-inspired jump-scare sequences), or completely bonkers finale that tries to be three things at once and then not so much ends but simply stops mid-scare – obviously matter.
I gravitate toward the bigger questions, though. How did a multimedia artist like Sigismondi – film director, screenwriter, music video director, photographer – who hadn’t directed a feature since 2010’s music biopic Runaways end up behind the camera of a horror movie produced by Steven Spielberg’s newly re-launched Amblin Pictures and released by Universal? Why did something once referred to as “a passion project for Steven Spielberg” end up sitting on the shelf for nearly two years? What went so wrong here that Finn Wolfhard filmed this right before Stranger Things 3, yet that season of television ended up debuting 7 months before The Turning? And will Mackenzie Davis ever find a film role as worthy of her talents as Cameron Howe, the wonderfully complex character she so memorably portrayed for 4 seasons of Halt and Catch Fire? In the yes column: Always Shine, “San Junipero.” In the no: Terminator: Dark Fate, The Turning.
Or maybe I’m just drawn to all of that because as at least the 20th film/TV adaptation of the Henry James perennial, there really isn’t much new to say about a faithful Turn of the Screw adaptation. In masterful hands, like Jack Clayton’s 1961 all-timer The Innocents, The Turn of the Screw can play as a beautifully ambiguous portrait of madness, isolation, and repressed sexuality. In innovative hands, it can inspire an alt-history told – spoiler from 2001 – from the ghost’s point of view (The Others). In lesser hands, however, it simply provides the skeleton for a series of jump scares with an inevitable “are the ghosts real or is it all in her head?” third act reveal.
The Turning tries to transcend that sense of inevitability by playing it almost completely straight as a ghost story. Apparitions of a threatening man and/or suffering woman routinely pop up in mirrors, sometimes unseen by Kate, more often, though, seen and screamed at. Early on, Kate twists the head of a creepy mannequin so that it won’t appear to be looking at her anymore, but once she leaves the room Sigismondi holds the shot on the mannequin head and watches as it snaps toward the camera completely on its own, clearly suggesting a supernatural presence. Heck, the opening scene of the film involves Kate’s predecessor fleeing the house in fear and failing to get to her car before a menacing man pops up behind her as Flora watches everything from her window.
So, it’s not just that Kate is “seeing things”; the film routinely tips its hand to the audience that there’s plenty of spooky shit that Kate isn’t even aware of yet. Ending Spoiler, you can’t do that, though, not if your script is ultimately building toward an ambiguous “but maybe it’s all in her head” ending. There has to be an internal logic and discipline to your storytelling to maintain the possibility that every scene could either feature a genuine haunting or the figment of a troubled mind. The Turning, sadly, chooses to be a straight-up haunted house movie for its first two-thirds before shouting, “Psych! We’re actually doing a mind-fuck psychological thriller. What, you didn’t know? We gave you plenty of warning. Remember that early scene where she visits her mom in the mental asylum and all those references to her past trauma? Total foreshadowing.”
This leads to a completely nonsensical ending that inspired derisive laughter at my screening. I walked away confused, but also frustrated. Sigismondi got a fantastic performance out of Mackenzie Davis – quite adept at capturing Kate’s frustration and horror – and executed a couple of solid jump scares. However, she also stranded poor Finn Wolfhard on an island, letting the young actor drown under the weight of playing a kid who might be possessed by the ghost of a murderer but is probably actually just a troubled youth lifted straight from Thoroughbreds. So, The Turning never totally works, but it has stretches of perfectly effective horror movie storytelling. Then it just completely falls apart, in such a way that you immediately understand why it sat on the shelf for so long.
The backstory gleaned from various Hollywood Reporter and Deadline reports is The Turning started its life as a project called Haunting from 28 Weeks Later director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, but mere weeks before the start of filming Amblin pulled the plug, eating the $5 million it had already spent on development. A last-second page-one rewrite by Fresnadillo and Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant, Contagion, The Report) was deemed far too radical a change at such a late stage. The director and writer were let go and all of the attached actors – Rose Leslie and Alfre Woodward chief among them – walked.
The producers tried to start over with Sigismondi and returned to the original script they had from Chad and Carey W. Hayes, the one Burns had largely rewritten. Sigismondi, as she told Daily Dread, was excited to add her visual style to this oft-analyzed story:
I read [the novella] when I was 16 and what stayed with me was how you could interpret it in any way. You can read it as a ghost story and then you strip that away and you read it as a woman’s descent into madness. So, that really intrigued me. And when you go and buy the book now, I don’t know if you’ve seen it in the bookstores, it’s only what, the total 120 pages little novella. But it literally has so many interpretations over the years, everybody’s got their interpretation of the symbology; what does Miles represent? What does Quint represent? And so, I love that, because for me it was the perfect framework to do something visual and just come up with my version of it that was a little fresh.
Everything seemed to proceed according to industry norms, with cast and crew gradually joining the project before filming finally took them to a country, Ireland, with generous tax credits and plenty of perfectly spooky country estates to choose from. The film they made together certainly looks gorgeous and Sigismondi – the woman behind Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera videos – put her background to good use in crafting a rather haunting, almost hypnotic music video that plays over the closing credits.
But The Turning, as a whole, just doesn’t work as a film. That’s why movies like this come out in January, the burial ground for orphaned projects. If anyone mentions The Turning again this year it will most likely be as a point of reference when Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor drops on Netflix or Alexandra McNally and Josh Berman’s Turn of the Screw – a modern update featuring a Mexican nanny – drops on Quibi. To be clear, that means 2020 will end up having at least three new versions of the infamous Henry James novella. The Turning – despite Mackenzie Davis’ best effort – is not a good start to the year of James. Save us, Mike Flanagan.
What’s your take on The Turning? Or any other Turn of the Screw adaptations? Let me know in the comments.