The Turning – a modern take on Henry James’s serial thriller
23 January, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
Directed by Floria Sigismondi
Mackenzie Davis as school teacher Kate
IT would be churlish to say this ghostly horror film is rammed with clichés – because its root source, the author Henry James, created many scenarios that have become standard must-haves. He has been a perpetual influencer on those who want to make our skin crawl and hair stand up.
James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw was first serialised in the magazine Colliers Weekly, meaning the author created a regular cliffhanger to end on. Taking the guise of a fireside story being told of a governess employed to look after two orphans living in a rambling mansion in the Essex countryside, the scare count is high and regular.
This adaptation stays true to large elements of the original tale, but is moved 110-odd years forward to Seattle at the time of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s death. The Seattle rock scene provides background music and the “look” of the film – a clever trick as gothic horror and grungy indie music walk hand in hand along the same dark and dreary paths of self-introspection.
Kate (Mackenzie Davis) is the school teacher seeking a fresh challenge. When she answers an advert to be the governess for two orphans, she envisages helping not only with their reading, writing and arithmetic but also providing a steadying adult influence on their parentless lives.
She drives thought the wind-chilled Washington countryside to the isolated manor – a place that at first glance looks so scary, anyone with half an imagination would turn tail and say ‘Yeah, thanks, but no way am I kipping here…’
The dark vibes are instantly mimicked by housekeeper Mrs Grose (Barbara Marten), who tells Kate that Flora (Brooklynn Prince) and her brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) are “thoroughbreds” who deserve the very best of everything. This beautifully pitched snob also reveals they watched their parents die in a car accident, that the previous governess simply upped sticks and left without so much as a toodle-oo, and that she hates literally everything about the world, except, of course, the little darlings who this forelock-tugging domestic-lifer worships.
Kate tries to settle in but at each turn something creepy happens. When Miles returns from boarding school, things get weirder and weirder. Davis is terrific – her fear seeps off the screen, and is ably backed by her co-leads.
While this is a traditional ghost story, contemporary references make it a fine example of neo-gothic. Skin-crawling situations, jump-out-of-your-seat surprises, and a fresh twist on what evil resides there is added to by the idea of blending a disturbed mind questioning reality.
Those of us who don’t like to have the wits thoroughly scared out of them will find this film a bit of a chore: a sign that Sigismondi has carved a decent horror from a classic.