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In Theaters: THE TURNING (2020)

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THE TURNING
(US - 2020)

Directed by Floria Sigismondi. Written by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes. Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Joely Richardson, Barbara Marten, Niall Gregg Fulton, Denna Thomsen, Kim Adis. (PG-13, 95 mins)

Many of pop culture's most effective and familiar ghost story tropes can be traced back to Henry James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, the chilling tale of a prim, proper, and--through as much suggestion as standards of the period would allow--sexually-repressed governess put in charge of two orphaned children in a gothic mansion which may or may not be haunted by the ghosts of the previous governess and the sinister groundskeeper. The story has inspired an untold number of horror novelists and short story writers and has been been adapted for stage, screen, and television dozens of times. The most famous, of course, is Jack Clayton's 1961 classic THE INNOCENTS, with Deborah Kerr as the governess. That was followed by a 1974 TV-movie from DARK SHADOWS creator Dan Curtis and starring Lynn Redgrave; a 1992 version with Patsy Kensit; 1999's Spanish-made PRESENCE OF MIND with Sadie Frost; as a 2000 PBS production with Jodhi May; 2006's IN A DARK PLACE with Leelee Sobieski; and as a 2009 BBC production with a pre-DOWNTON ABBEY Michelle Dockery (and while not a direct adaptation, Alejandro Amenabar's 2001 film THE OTHERS, with Nicole Kidman, owes a tremendous debt to The Turn of the Screw). Not only is James' story always the source of serious chills down the spine, but the governess role is a strong, complex, and multi-layered one for any actress to tackle, so much so that screen legend Kerr often cited her work in THE INNOCENTS as her best performance, and it wasn't even one of six for which she was Oscar-nominated.





The latest film to tackle James' renowned novella is the misbegotten THE TURNING, which moves the story to 1994--with an early shot of a TV showing breaking news of Kurt Cobain's suicide--apparently for no reasons other than fetishized nostalgia and the idea that even The Turn of the Screw needed to be revamped in order to pander to the AMERICAN HORROR STORY/STRANGER THINGSification of today's horror, right down to the presence of IT and STRANGER THINGS co-star Finn Wolfhard as one of the orphaned children. The 1994 setting probably seemed like a wink-and-a-nudge from director Floria Sigismondi, directing her first feature film since 2010's THE RUNAWAYS and who's best known for her music videos for David Bowie, Marilyn Manson (she directed the video for "The Beautiful People"), Tricky, Bjork, Fiona Apple, and The White Stripes, and in more recent years, Pink, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, and Dua Lipa. Sigismondi clearly has stylistic chops and a good reputation in her field in order to land so many high-profile gigs in the music industry, but THE TURNING just doesn't work. The script by twin horror scribes Chad and Carey W. Hayes (still dining out on the two CONJURINGs, while hoping we forgot they penned $3 Big Lots DVD rack fixtures like the Paris Hilton HOUSE OF WAX, THE REAPING, and WHITEOUT) is content to recycle every hoary horror cliche of the modern era, while attempting to give some contemporary subtext that it introduces in a half-assed fashion and almost instantly abandons. There's enough sexual overtones to James' story that a modern update (or modern-ish, if we consider the grunge-era setting, with songs not from that era but rather, current alt-rock throwbacks like Warpaint, The Kills' Alison Mosshart, and Soccer Mommy) could've been an insightful commentary on #MeToo and #TimesUp, but after laying the groundwork for such a topic, the filmmakers don't do anything with it and instead opt to move on to the next tired jump scare, as if Sigismondi suddenly remembers (or was reminded) that she's contractually obligated to deliver a PG-13 film.


Set for release in February 2019 and shelved for nearly a year until a weekend could be found for a slightly more appropriate January dumping, THE TURNING uses enough of James' source work but also tries to split the difference with the little-remembered 1972 film THE NIGHTCOMERS, a prequel to THE INNOCENTS before the term "prequel" entered the moviegoing lexicon. Freed from the cinematic restraints of just a decade earlier, THE NIGHTCOMERS enjoyed the relatively new freedom of the R rating in its INNOCENTS origin story about the previous governess Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) and her sweaty, sadomasochistic sexcapades with groundskeeper Quint, played by Marlon Brando just before his triumphant GODFATHER comeback. THE NIGHTCOMERS is essentially INNOCENTS fan fiction that erases the mystery and ambiguity of the older film's much-debated ending and again, subtly incorporating those sexual aspects could've taken THE TURNING to some intriguing places. In the governess role, Mackenzie Davis is Kate, a college student who takes a job as a live-in teacher for seven-year-old orphan Flora (THE FLORIDA PROJECT's Brooklynn Prince) at a massive gothic estate in an isolated region of the Pacific Northwest. Devoted and judgmental housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten) is an obvious keeper of dark secrets who insists Flora never leave the grounds, and claims to not know what happened with previous teacher Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen), or how her mysterious "disappearance" relates to the accidental death of Quint (Niall Greig Fulton). It isn't long before Kate starts hearing strange voices, creaks, and moans in the middle of the night and catches glimpses of faces that look like they might be Miss Jessel and Quint. But instead of leaving, she sticks around. She feels a duty to help young Flora, and while she didn't lose her parents in a tragic car accident like the little girl did, she understands the notion of a rough childhood after her father walked out on her and her psychologically-disturbed mother, who's now in a mental institution. In what's really THE TURNING's sole inspired decision, Kate's mother is played in two brief scenes by Joely Richardson, making her yet another member of the Redgrave acting dynasty to appear in an adaptation of the story: her aunt Lynn Redgrave starred in the aforementioned 1974 TV-movie, her uncle Corin Redgrave appeared in the 2009 BBC version, and her grandfather Michael Redgrave played the cold-hearted uncle who hired Kerr's governess to care for his niece and nephew in THE INNOCENTS.


Complicating matters is the unexpected arrival of Flora's older, teenage brother Miles (Wolfhard), who's been expelled from boarding school after violently attacking a classmate (of course, Mrs. Grose refuses to believe it, since both children are "thoroughbreds"). Miles immediately antagonizes Kate and undermines the bond she's formed with Flora, and she even wakes in the middle of the night to find him standing over her and caressing her. One of the main ideas of James' novella and THE INNOCENTS was the governess' belief that the spirits of Miss Jessel and Quint were attempting to possess the children in order to continue their secret relationship. But it's never really a certainty that these ghosts exist and there's significant evidence that the governess is projecting her own neuroses and psychosexual hang-ups on to the children. Having a teenage, hormonal Miles demonstrate some leering designs on Kate--if indeed he's possessed by Quint--is an example of THE TURNING potentially updating James with contemporary relevance. But every time it even flirts with any story element of that sort, it backs off and takes the safe route, with more rote jump scares, extended dream sequence fake-outs that only seem to be there to pad the run time, a brief sojourn into AMITYVILLE HORROR/ "we need to get out of this house!" territory with the enraged ghost of Quint going on an estate-wide rampage, and finally, the lamest non-ending to a horror movie since THE DEVIL INSIDE sent the audience to a web site to see how things panned out. Attempts at ambiguity can't work when there's no subtlety to the story and no underlying themes on which to build it. THE INNOCENTS remains one of the most terrifying of horror films, and those shots of the ghostly Miss Jessel standing on the lake in the distance are still the stuff of nightmares. By contrast, THE TURNING is a film that can't even be bothered to come up with a cliched twist ending and instead just abruptly peaces out, dumbing down THE INNOCENTS and Henry James into a pointless post-Blumhouse jump-scare machine with a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material. Davis essays her role with convincing anguish and emerges unscathed, as does the very promising Prince, one of the most natural and unaffected child actors in recent years, and who was so memorable as Moonee in THE FLORIDA PROJECT. They--and everyone else--deserve better than THE TURNING.



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