Director Floria Sigismondi delivers a serious-minded, stylish and surreal fever dream
Somebody somewhere screwed up the story and spread the belief that all horror movies had to tear you to pieces, saturating the screen with sadism and nihilism and other sorts of negative isms. They forgot that once upon a time, people turned to darker filmed fantasies to immerse themselves in beauty, to experience a sort of sinister, out-of-body, sensorial trip; to lose oneself in a work of macabre imagination, of somber moods and grandiose imagery. I can’t be sure exactly when jolts and jumps and spoon-fed, mundane logic superseded aesthetics in horror, but I know how lousy I feel when the world shrugs its shoulders in the wake of the release of a film – and a filmmaker – who has NOT forgotten what the essence of the genre is.
Such a picture is THE TURNING, and such a director is Floria Sigismondi, the artist whose landmark work making videos for David Bowie and Marilyn Manson (and many, many others) defined the look and feel of darker rock ‘n’ roll in the 1990s. Her 2010 feature film debut THE RUNAWAYS was a logical extension of her love of sound and image, telling the story of Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and the titular band in a visually flashy fashion. But that movie’s greatest power was when it dialed things down, when it focused on faces, inner voices and emotion. The brief sequence where a tired, homesick Currie hears Don McLean’s “Vincent” on the radio during a drive between gigs is in itself a small, moving piece of cinema as poetry and secretly encapsulates everything the movie is about. Her second film, the recently released THE TURNING is indeed a horror picture, yet another dive into the well-worn weird-world painted in Henry James’ novel “The Turn of the Screw”. And while the trailer for this one speaks to appeal to the Friday night Blumhouse crowd, its PG-13 rating inviting almost all audiences in to see it, the actual film itself is something else, or rather it slowly, surely, becomes something else. In fact, THE TURNING has the ultimate effect of actually turning, of rotating, sensually, seriously. It’s a movie that begins as a whole and then sort of melts into a swirling death-pool of subconscious imagery and primordial terror. In other words, it’s the work of a great artist trying to remind the world of the real deal power of horror cinema and what it can do to its audience.
THE TURNING stars Mackenzie Davis (recently seen in as the heroic sorta-cyborg in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE) as Kate, a fetching young woman who takes on the position of governess at the looming Fairchild Estate, her charge being seven year old Flora Fairchild (Brooklyn Prince), an orphan who lives in the mansion with her older brother Miles (STRANGER THINGS’ Finn Wolfhard). The child of a mother deep in the thralls of mental illness, Kate immediately connects with the sweet but troubled Flora, while doing her best to navigate the increasingly strange, intrusive behaviours of the possibly disturbed Miles. After learning that the live-in horse trainer Quint had mysteriously died and that the previous Governess had vanished without a trace, Kate begins to suspect something isn’t quite right in the house, especially when the creepy caretaker (Barbara Marten) refuses to let Flora leave the grounds, the belief that she may in fact die if she does. Naturally, the estate is haunted and soon, Kate is falling deep, then deeper into supernatural psychosis, trying to uncover the central mystery, protect her charges and stop herself from unraveling completely.
You’ve been down this road before, whether it be in Jack Clayton’s relatively faithful adaptation of the James novel THE INNOCENTS, or in similarly themed films like Dan Curtis’ BURNT OFFERINGS or Alejandro Amenabar’s THE OTHERS, so the mechanics of the plot in THE TURNING are simply there to propel it forward in a familiar way. But it’s the singer, not the song and here, Sigismondi proves herself a virtuoso master of atmosphere, using Kate as her avatar to explore a pulsating netherworld of gently bent sex and spectral shenanigans. She knows how to push a shock sequence into high art, like in the latter scene where Kate is attacked – or imagines she is being attacked – by a severed hand. In most films of this kind, the scene would be a quick blast but here, Sigismondi lets it go on and on, turning it into an uncomfortable, endless assault on her central character and, in turn, us. And Davis sells it all, working with her director to etch a portrait of a woman whose vulnerable mental state might be either welcoming the ghastly phenomena she endures…or actually the very source of it. By the time the picture dissolves into free-form, gothic psychedelia until in breaks at its brilliantly ambiguous final shot, we have no idea how to read any of it. We just fall into it with Kate. And wait.
Outside of a flabby, expositional device with Kate connecting to her sassy friend in the “outside” world, almost every single thing about THE TURNING works; from its arresting costume design (all bright reds, oranges and knitted Irish sweaters) that is mated seamlessly with its muted production design, to the flawless performances (Davis is mesmerizing and the kids are charismatic without being obnoxious), to the jaw-dropping house itself, to its snake-eating-its-own-tail anti-ending, to its hypnotic end-credits sequence, this is a sophisticated work of dread, decay, brooding mood and abstract storytelling coated in the sheen of a simplistic spook show. See it.