Don’t believe the reviews: THE TURNING is worth a watch. [review]

Commentary, Film and Television

If you believe the reviews, The Turning is a turn-off.

Audiences and critics seem to be united on that. The ghost story earned an “F” rating on CinemaScore. One writer for the Irish Times claimed that the film was such a “waste of time,” readers shouldn’t even bother to skim his review.

I’m not going to say these people are wrong, just that it would be a mistake to listen to them. While not perfect, The Turning is visually striking, well-acted, consistently scary and surprisingly potent, with a palpable sense of menace building throughout.

A 1990s-set adaptation of “The Turning of the Screw,” the film sees hip young teacher Kate take a job as a live-in tutor to an orphaned girl in a haunted house. The Turning’s fairly average storyline is elevated by director Floria Sigismondi’s skill as a stylist. Known for her surreal music videos for everyone from Marilyn Manson to Katy Perry, the Italian-Canadian director uses whirling camera angles and misleading shots to create an air of disorientation and unease even when there are no ghosts on screen. (And her ghosts, when they do appear, are terrifying).

Kate’s grunge-chic style (recalling the director’s debut feature, glam-punk biopic The Runaways) is a stark contrast to the imposing gothic mansion and the omnipresent gloom of the autumn sky. The dissonance is enhanced by the film’s soundtrack, which sets quirky alt-rock tracks alongside an unsettling score by composer Nathan Barr.

The house is spooky, almost comically so, which broken antique dolls and creepy mannequins haunting every frame. In addition to a fashion mannequin grotesquely made up to resemble an ancestral relative, Kate notices another that has been mutilated, dozens of pins shoved into its breasts.

“Miles did that,” the little girl says, referring to her absent teenage brother.

Kate’s pupil Flora is lonely but charming (even if her mischievousness sometimes takes on a disturbing edge – she’s clearly been exposed to some bad influences), and all seems fine until Miles is sent home from boarding school. The boy has been expelled for a vicious attack on another student, and Kate is instantly wary.

The spectre of this violent teenage boy looms over Kate as Miles sneaks into her room at night and makes increasingly leering comments during the daytime. Even so, she notes a strange duality in him, as he alternates between callous viciousness and occasional moments of kindness.

(Miles’ genuine affection for his little sister is a breath of fresh air compared to the exasperated older siblings these movies typically feature).

Kate soon realizes that there’s something more sinister going on than sexual harassment from a troubled teen. Strange things happen independent of Miles, and she starts seeing apparitions of his former riding instructor (a “brute” who died violently) and Flora’s previous teacher, who disappeared in the night without saying goodbye.

The film’s occasionally clumsy script could have fallen flat in other hands; but Sigismondi’s rendering of dream logic turns plot holes into mysteries. She’s the ideal director for a project where logic and realism aren’t the point; she even manages to redeem an infuriating ending, which sees the film take a jarring turn into Lynchian surrealism.

The Turning’s twist is a bit of a cop-out, to be sure, and the choice to cast doubt on its heroine’s perceptions is a bit troubling considering the film’s theme of sexual violence. But the finale unfolds creatively enough that it transcends cliché.

Sigismondi’s concluding scenes are some of the most startling and visually arresting in the entire film (particularly a sequence where Kate’s midnight escape blends into the inky art of a mental patient), and she leaves just enough unseen to haunt you. More importantly, the meaning of it all remains ambiguous: the dialogue suggests a “rational” explanation to the strange events at the mansion, but the final shot suggests that there’s something darker and stranger going on.

I liked The Turning. You may not – but if you go in with the right attitude, you’ll find it’s more interesting than you’d been led to believe.

Title: The Turning

Director: Floria Sigismondi

Screenwriters: Carey W. Hayes & Chad Hayes

Year: 2020

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