The Turning (2020) Review

Finn Wolfhard Mackenzie Davis

The Turning (2020)
Director: Floria Sigismondi
Screenwriter: Carey W. Hayes, Chad Hayes
Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklyn Prince

In 2017, The Snowman was unleashed upon audiences. What looked like an intriguing serial killer story with gorgeous photography failed to reach its full potential. A lot of the strands in the film failed to come together because of missing footage. It’s not that said footage was lost or damaged, it was simply never shot. Plot threads failed to come together, leaving the audience a bit confused as to why there was so much build up around certain elements. The Turning exists in a similar state, minus the glaring production problems.

Set in April of 1994, The Turning follows Kate (Mackenzie Davis), a governess for a rich orphan with agoraphobia or something. The girl’s brother, Miles, is expelled from his boarding school, leaving Kate to deal with two kids. Some spooky stuff happens, and Kate has to decide whether she’s going to stay and subject herself to the mental torture of this experience or leave. Since it’s a horror film, I’m sure you can guess which route she takes.

The cinematography and production design are the saviors of the film. Shots of the home capture the extravagance of its super rich inhabitants, giving viewers a good sense of the setting’s incredible scale. Capturing statues, the architecture and creepy sculptures (another similarity to The Snowman) against the grey sky sets a gloomy, gothic mood. One particular stand-out set is the mental hospital the protagonist’s mother resides in, establishing a strong association between the color blue and insanity. The costumes feel authentic to 90s fashion too, without being over-the-top/stereotypical like those in 80s movies can be. Monochrome scenes express the tone of the action and foretell coming tragedy, and there are different styles of art shown throughout the film, each used to tell us things about the characters we relate them to. 

The jump scares are however the film’s most surprising point of strength. The filmmakers clearly understand the rhythm of a jump scare, and do a great job of playing on our expectations. There’s a point where a creepy doll is clearly going to do something frightening, but the film plays off that by using other things to scare us instead. Camera misdirection, diegetic sound and editing are used to their full effect, and the frights don’t come across as easy or cheap. 

Finn Wolfhard (It) and Brooklynn Prince give great performances as the creepy kids. Finn’s character is the personification of affluenza, and it’s difficult to read what his motivation is beyond doing whatever he pleases because he’s a rich white dude (which is its own type of terrifying). Brooklynn, star of The Florida Project, is really entertaining, and a lot of the credit has to go to Floria Sigismondi for being able to direct her in such a way despite the child actor’s young age. Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner 2049; Terminator: Dark Fate) is fine as Kate, but the character is so bland. She’s a nice young woman whose main trait is being a good person, and there’s not much more to her than that.

Despite establishing Miles as Donald Trump Jr. Jr., there’s no critique of the lifestyles or attitudes of the entitled upper class. In his book “Who Rules America?”, G.W. Domhoff describes the socialization process for kids like the ones in the movie:

“From infancy through young adulthood, members of the upper class receive a distinctive education… This separate educational system is important evidence for the distinctiveness of the mentality and lifestyle that exists within the upper class because schools play a large role in transmitting the class structure to their students…  As a retired business leader told one of my research assistants: ‘At school we were made to feel somewhat better [than other people] because of our class. That existed, and I’ve always disliked it intensely. Unfortunately, I’m afraid some of these things rub off on one.’”

But the biggest issue with The Turning is that this doesn’t make complete sense. It’s unclear where in the process it stopped making sense, but by the final cut of the film, the ending was too murky. It’s fine to have a film that is purposefully ambiguous, but the final five minutes are simply incoherent. That’s a problem with the filmmaking, because editing is the final writing room. Walking out of the theater left a feeling that there needed to be at least ten more minutes of film to give us an idea as to what happened.

The film obviously wants to impart a question of sanity, but that isn’t felt throughout its runtime. It plays like a ghost story that is actually happening when things are shown to the audience without other characters present – how else can we perceive action without any characters present other than as an objective statement about the plot of the film? How do the unreal elements play into the actual reality of the plot? How much of the film is real versus subjective perspective of an unreliable narrator? What is the film ultimately trying to tell us? If this film lacked its quality visual style, it might be one of the most notoriously bad horror films ever released.

It mostly comes down to what matters most to you in a movie. Ask me in the recent past, and my opinion of this would have been harsher. The experience was like watching The Snowman, or even Slender Man. There are clear deficiencies in this telling of an already existing story that left many viewers with a sour aftertaste. There’s more to a film than that, and though the concepts and ideas aren’t novel, the presentation and delivery of tropes is done well enough that it’s worth viewing. It’s one rewrite or reshoot away from making complete sense. It isn’t clear where the translation was lost from pre- to post-production, but there’s enough good in this film that I’m willing to overlook it. I’d see it over Underwater and The Grudge any day.

Ultimately, The Turning’s shortcomings illustrate the things that divide people on films. What really matters most about a film: its cinematic presentation, or its story/plot elements? You might say it’s more about the cohesion between the two, but when it comes to film, it’s the unique characteristics of cinematography and editing that give the greatest importance to any release. How those two elements are used to tell the story can elevate a work beyond a subpar script and questionable ending. The Turning’s good qualities generally outweigh the bad, and this movie can give thrills on par with many others about haunted houses. And isn’t that really what people go for, anyway? 


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