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maryann johanson | takeaway only

The Turning movie review: it’s screwed

The Turning red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Strips away the ambiguity of the source story to leave us with lazy jump scares, visual gloom, and a cheap cheat of an ending. Gaslights its protagonist and, incredibly enragingly, the viewer, too.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of most Hollywood horror
I have read the source material (and I am indifferent about it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

I am so done with that subgenre of horror movies — which is, let’s be honest, most horror movies — that is all about terrorizing attractive young women for the (presumed) titillation of the audience. (All that breathy panting…) I don’t get turned on by that and I don’t need that, but then again, I am not a young white man and so I am invisible to Hollywood (and to lots of the rest of our godforsaken culture).

But I gave The Turning a chance when I just simply avoid most of what the film industry promotes as horror because it’s directed by a woman: Floria Sigismondi, whose last feature was 2010’s amazing Joan Jett origin story, the ragingly feminist The Runaways. And I thought, Well, she’s gonna kick the horror genre in the ass, right?

The Turning Finn Wolfhard

Much spooky. Such goth.

No such fucking luck. The Turning takes Henry James’s classic 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” updates it to the modern world — well, to the mid 1990s — and strips it of all its ambiguity, which is arguably its most important aspect. And if Sigismondi’s direction does not, thank goodness, visually objectify Mackenzie Davis’s (Terminator: Dark Fate, Tully) protagonist, Kate, the story is nevertheless about nothing more than terrorizing her. This movie may have been directed by a woman, but it was written by two men — Carey and Chad Hayes (The Conjuring 2, Whiteout) — and it shows.

The first red flag went up for me when Kate, a university student studying to be a teacher, leaves school to take a job as a live-in governess and tutor to a small rich orphan, Flora (Brooklynn Prince: The Angry Birds Movie 2, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part), and justifies this by saying, “I don’t want to teach, I want to make a difference.” As if teachers, I guess, don’t make a difference?

The Turning thinks — wrongly — that it has a built-in response to its absurd unreasonableness and ridiculous contrivances.

So Kate journeys out to the middle of nowhere to the gothic pile where little Flora lives with no one else except the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten: Oranges and Sunshine), since her parents died… a violent tragedy the kid witnessed. Then her older brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard: It: Chapter Two, Dog Days), comes home after getting kicked out of his boarding school, and he’s a total teenage creep who says and does things not only wildly inappropriate to Kate but perhaps edging on psychopathy.

These children are very obviously in need of serious psychological assistance; they appear to have no legal guardian (who hired and is paying Kate?); and yet even as Miles’s behavior gets more disturbing and Flora’s trauma more apparent, Kate doesn’t try to get help for them or for herself. (The 1990s setting may be to isolate Kate — no cell phones, no Internet — but there are landlines and she has a car, so… never mind that it’s the 1990s?) Oh, and the house seems to be haunted by at least two specters, one of which may be that of the previous tutor who “left without saying goodbye.” Uh-huh.

The Turning Mackenzie Davis Brooklynn Prince

Did… did Kate make her jacket out of the drapes?

The typical horror-flick jump scares that taunt Kate are lazy enough, as is the nonsense of casting everything onscreen in so much grim gloom that we can barely see what’s going on most of the time. But The Turning gaslights its protagonist, too, by forcing her to question her own reactions to what is going on around her and to flail around for reasons to downplay it all.

But maybe the worst thing about this incredibly enraging movie is that, in taking away the ambiguity of the original story (I won’t spoil if you don’t already know what I’m referring to), it thinks it has a built-in response to these objections and others one might raise about its absurd unreasonableness and ridiculous contrivances. So The Turning ultimately gaslights the viewer, too, with an ending it thinks is clever but is nothing but a cheap cheat.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2020’s other theatrical releases.



red light 0 stars

The Turning (2020) | directed by Floria Sigismondi
US/Can release: Jan 24 2020
UK/Ire release: Jan 24 2020

MPAA: rated PG-13 for terror, violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some suggestive content
BBFC: rated 15 (strong horror)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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