For a novella published in 1898, Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” is having a boffo 2020. The Netflix miniseries “The Haunting of Bly Manor” is rightfully getting all the hype, but “The Turning” also came out this year, in January before the mass theater shutdown. I watched this lesser-known adaptation out of curiosity after finishing “Bly Manor.” It gets some appeal from the intrigue of how a different creative team (screenwriters Chad and Carey W. Hayes of “The Conjuring” and director Floria Sigismondi) adapts the novella, but also loses suspense because I knew the story’s broad strokes.
Trying to imagine that I didn’t know the mystery’s solution ahead of time, “The Turning” is still a pretty bad movie, although it’s mostly because it fails to stick the landing. It falls on its face on the mat. Then it wobbles to its feet and stumbles into the front row of spectators. Then it limps away with a twisted ankle.
Before that, “The Turning” is watchable. It emphasizes the nanny-children relationship between Kate and Miles and Flora. Mackenzie Davis (“Terminator: Dark Fate”) is an expressive lead as the early 1990s nanny at this Maine mansion, and Kate’s interactions with Miles are nice and creepy, as Sigismondi showcases “Stranger Things’ ” Finn Wolfhard, who hasn’t yet grown into his looks. Kate reacts with realistic awkwardness to Miles’ advances.
Brooklynn Prince is flatter as Flora, with whom Kate has a tighter bond. Flora does the basic things that dark-haired little girls in horror flicks do, such as making creepy coal drawings that she thinks are perfectly normal. Barbara Martin rounds out the mansion’s quartet as elderly housekeeper Mrs. Grose, who maybe is also the executor of the estate who hires Kate. That part is unclear, but suffice it to say that “The Turning” focuses on these four people.
The mythology around them — of deceased former nannies and ghosts and Flora’s unwillingness to leave the grounds — is straightforward in its hauntings yet confusing in its details. The latter point is why “The Turning” isn’t satisfying; it’s too understated and unclear.
I don’t know what it concludes about Miles’ possible possession by Quint (Niall Greig Fulton) or Kate’s relationship with her mentally addled artist mom Darla (Joely Richardson). It’s a shame because the Hayeses tease different things out of James’ work than Mike Flanagan does in “Bly Manor”; it could stand on its own if it made a lick of sense.
Credit where it’s due: “The Turning” peppers in solid scares. The hide-and-seek sequence is particularly good. In terms of crazy old architecture, “The Turning’s” might even top “Bly Manor’s” with its old tunnels and a sewing room filled with creepy manikins. The massive grounds dotted with hedges and barns and an out-of-season swimming pool are nice to look at. Interestingly, this Maine-set film was shot in Ireland, whereas the UK-set “Bly Manor” was shot in the USA and Canada.
Although I probably didn’t watch “The Turning” in ideal circumstances – right after a superior “Turn of the Screw” adaptation – I was mildly engaged by Davis’ performance and the question of how Darla would tie into the story and how things would be resolved. When the end credits rolled, though, I didn’t know what had happened. Admittedly, I might be partly to blame, but it should be noted that I didn’t feel motivated to look up what Sigismondi and her team intended – whereas I’ve spent a lot of web-surfing time digging into “Bly Manor.”