Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning (2020) scares with its lack of substance and out-of-focus plot – rather than with the actual degree of frights delivered.
When Stanley Kubrick premiered The Shining (1980), numerous critics panned the way the film steered away from the source material. Indeed, Kubrick took liberty, shifted the story’s weight and completely changed the end too. Years later, however, this very film became an iconoclastic symbol of how to dress a pretty basic horror story in a rich-in-texture, psychological drama.
And here’s the thing. Floria Sigismondi’s source material wasn’t one of many horror novels conceived on a manufacturing scale by Stephen King. On the contrary, the book that The Turning (2020) is based on – The Turn of the Screw – is a serious gut-punch drama with a nasty, dark twist written by a British writer Henry James.
Unfortunately, the ambitious material not only overcame Floria Sigismondi’s skills as a director. What actually happened with The Turning (2020) is an outrageous act of butchering a great novel by committing every possible sin on the bad filmmaker’s list.
What is The Turning (2020) about?
In The Turning (2020), a young governess Kate (Mackenzie Davis) is hired to look after two orphaned children, Miles and Flora. Upon her arrival, Kate is stunned by the gargantuan mansion and the lavish lifestyle of the kids. She instantly gains Flora’s trust, however it’s Miles with whom Kate goes to war with. Soon, disturbing things being to happen in the manor, and Kate attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding the house – as well as the disappearance of the previous governess.
Floria Sigismondi draws a thick line between her bastard child of a movie and James’ novella early on. Instead of the original gothic setting, she chooses – for reasons unspecified – to pick Kurt Cobain’s death as the time frame where The Turning (2020) takes place. This particular event is of no importance, and the times seem to matter only in the intro to Kate. After the brief introduction, Sigismondi hurries to move the story to a… gothic-looking manor.
Let’s call it a whim though, or a tribute to Sigismondi’s favorite rock man.
That particular location, with darkly corridors and creepy dolls everywhere (scattered in the house for – again – reasons unspecified) feels very formulaic. To tell the truth, French cinematographer David Ungaro does conjure a few remarkable photographies, however it’s the way Sigismondi patches them together that rips the soul out of Ungaro’s work. It’s the generic kind of horror movie cinematography, which adds nothing to the story.
And that’s particularly a pity, considering how ill-conceived this story is.
The script of The Turning (2020) is an ugly mess
When watching The Turning (2020), I concluded that skilled horror filmmakers understand the value of slow-burn scares. The reason for that is fairly simple. To let the audience commune with evil is to accumulate the scare factor, which is consequently far more under-your-skin. While jump-scares fest and a slow-burner concepts can intertwine, one needs to lead the way.
In The Turning (2020), Carey and Chad Hayes – the two authors of the script – cannot choose between the two. On the one hand, The Turning (2020) is a slow-burner, and its early-bird antagonist seems to be Miles – a bratty, curly-hair kid whose faces are more dumber than scary. Floria Sigismondi mistakenly expects Finn Wolfhard, who plays Miles, to operate the creepiness machine alone. Mistakenly, because the young actor belongs to the nerds from It (2017) and not to the array of blood-curdling antagonists.
Sigismondi notices it too, and hence mid-time through the film, the director switches the gears.That, in turn, leaves the writing of Hayes & Hayes even more opaque. To aid the situation, The Turning (2020) brings in a ghost of a deceased horse trainer, who also happened to be a real nasty person. This is directly drawn from Henry James’ novel, and in the meantime, Sigismondi and the her writers manage to finish reading James’ novella too.
So, when the ghost thing ain’t working either, Sigismondi draws her final weapon – insanity of the protagonist.
Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is torn to pieces in The Turning (2020)
In The Turn of the Screw, James builds the conflict of the young governess through questioning her mental instability. Since the book is narrated from her perspective, it is up to the reader who to believe. Through a genuinely frightening series of events, and ghosts mixing with monsters, James gives grounds to the approach that the scariest monster of them all is human nature.
By now, you probably wouldn’t expect Floria Sigismondi to go all Kubrick and vivisect the novel in order to find her own voice and point of view. In fact, the director doesn’t recall this “insanity” part until two third of The Turning (2020) passes by. And that’s a pity, because Mackenzie Davis gives her heart and soul to the slightly feminist role as Kate, and if only given more space, she’d deliver a pretty satisfying performance.
Albeit The Turning (2020) wastes a fine steak and grinds it to make a meaty pulp of a movie, it earns its hate Grade rating by the way the film ends. The Turning (2020) single-handedly delivers the most muddled ending to any horror movie in this decade at least. It’s the kind of turn that M. Night Shyamalan would write and quickly cross out, with a note attached “cool, but makes no sense.” The way The Turning (2020) ends is exactly that – could be cool, but given everything that precedes it, this is a love letter to Tommy Wiseau’s filmmaking methods.
The Turning (2020) – Culturally Loved or Hated?
I won’t deny Floria Sigismondi a decent visual skill, however this is an exemplary fuckup of an adaptation – a travesty rather than a tribute.
The Turning (2020)
Hate Grade: 8/10
Director: Floria Sigismondi
Writers: Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes
Based on: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklyn Prince
Music: Nathan Barr
Cinematography: David Ungaro
If you liked The Turning (2020), you should also check out:
- Amityville (2005) – the setting and cinematography of The Turning (2020) are similar, along with the overall quality of the movie
- The Lodge (2019) – Riley Keough takes care of two kids in a remote cabin, when evil things begin to emerge and influence all of them
- The Boy (2016) – A woman is hired to take care of a human-like doll, however soon she learns about a dark secret related to it. Also set in a gothic, huge house, and with a female protagonist in the centre