Ever since #MeToo opened the world’s eyes to the horrors of toxic masculinity, horror filmmakers — particularly female ones — have been finding increasingly creative ways to imbue their work with fears unique to women. This past year alone, both Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale” and Sophia Takal’s “Black Christmas” used rape-revenge tropes as plot points, though to vastly different degrees of success.
In her stylish if not entirely bone-chilling new movie “The Turning,” director Floria Sigismondi shrewdly updates Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” to haunt her young protagonist with unwanted male attention and obsession. Updating the story that inspired Jack Clayton’s 1961 classic “The Innocents,” which followed the text more closely, “The Turning” finishes with a grand flourish that twists the vintage tale into something far more sinister — and contemporary.
The film’s opening hews closely enough to the original novella, as the fresh-faced Kate (Mackenzie Davis) accepts an unusual position as governess for absurdly wealthy orphan Flora (Brooklynn Prince), who lives in an extravagant manor home. When she arrives, Kate is greeted by the housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), a stern woman who warns Kate: “The children are very special. They’re thoroughbreds.” Though he was not part of the original deal, Flora’s brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) soon returns after being expelled from his elite boarding school for attacking another student.
The jump scares come soon enough, when the ghostly image of a screaming woman flashes in a window and a mannequin snaps its own neck back into place. An innocent stroll through the property’s elaborate maze is properly foreboding, and the creaks, thuds, and hushed voices of the house are eerie enough to keep Kate up at night. The subtle male aggression creeps in when Miles is found standing over Kate’s bed watching her sleep. Later, he abruptly kisses her on the cheek.
Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment
“The Turning” contains all of the requisite elements of a haunted house yarn; there are spooked horses, sleepless nights, wings of the house Kate isn’t supposed to go, and flashes of ethereal figures in mirrors. The obligatory bathtub scene feels a bit generic; Sigismondi frames the emaciated curve of Davis’ hunched spine from above, as she seeks refuge in the yellow tub’s chalky water.
Davis disintegrates convincingly from innocent lamb to disheveled victim, as the ghosts of the house (or is it the children?) escalate their terrorizing. Her shiny platinum blonde bob quickly fizzles into a stringy mop, and she soon gives up her colorfully stylish outfits for a ratty oversized sweater. She is warmly sweet with Flora, which goes a long way towards justifying why Kate stays despite the teenage creep and voyeuristic ghosts. Her sunny optimism is never cloying, and she grows convincingly terrified as the house continues to work its dark magic. The tension between Kate and Miles walks a fine line that’s both disturbing and believable, like when he tells her his “imaginary” friend thinks her tattoo is sexy.
As he did in recent genre hits “Stranger Things” and both “It” films, Wolfhard proves himself a versatile and fearless young actor, and he steps into the dark side with chilling precision. He reacts to Kate’s growing distress with the dead eyes and blank expression of a young sociopath, turning teen insolence into something far more sinister. A somewhat unexpected choice, Prince brings the same wit and flare for the dramatic to the creepy proceedings that made her so compelling in “The Florida Project.” She even manages to eke out a few laughs from lines like, “Miles did that. I told him it was tacky,” or her glib response to Miles’ stomping out a straggler from the koi pond (“That was my favorite fish”).
Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment
The script, written by “The Conjuring” duo Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes, is loaded with weighty one-liners, some that may provoke more eye rolls than head nods. When Flora announces, “Everyone dies,” or Miles explains that a horse is “a strong animal. If you don’t exert power over it, then you’ll never gain control,” both moments feel like clues to a mystery that never quite pays off. Not that there isn’t a satisfying twist to this well-known story, but the breadcrumbs don’t exactly lead to the story it seems the writers were trying to tell. Still, Kate’s final reckoning offers a satisfying surprise even if it’s nothing new.
“The Turning” announces Sigismondi as a bold and adept genre filmmaker, with an eye for detail and impeccable casting choices. The prolific music video director hasn’t made a narrative feature since 2010’s Kristen Stewart vehicle “The Runaways,” and with any luck, “The Turning” will remind studios of her talent. She clearly understands actors, milking the speaking scenes for all they’re worth and letting the performances from her stellar cast shine. In sweeping aerial shots and ever-so-slightly askew close-ups, Sigismondi and cinematographer David Ungaro construct a pristinely compact world where nothing is as beautiful as it looks. Nathan Barr’s bass-heavy score is also supremely hair-raising.
The ever-watchful male gaze, omnipresent but maddeningly difficult to catch, is the real terror in “The Turning.” The film understands that each comment, each leering glance, each unwanted grope builds up to a kind of pulsing madness — yet another turn of the screw.
Universal Pictures will release “The Turning” in theaters worldwide on Friday, January 24.