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If you've ever read Henry James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, it was likely due to a school assignment. That's how actress Mackenzie Davis (Terminator: Dark Fate, Black Mirror) first encountered the classic horror story; in her case, it was during a college course. It's the kind of literature teachers and professors love to pick apart for its flexible, contemplative narrative and, above all else, its application of the unreliable narrator. Its latest film adaptation, The Turning, in which Davis stars as the narrator, continues those trends.
Much like its source text, The Turning, directed by Floria Sigismondi and in theaters today, tells the story of a young woman who's hired to tutor and care for two orphaned children in a big, beautiful house — the kind of mansion that only old aristocrats ever own. Although the opulent garden is mostly dead and the koi pond is ravaged by birds, the new tutor, Kate Mandell (Davis), can hardly believe she's been granted this opportunity. What a wonderful thing, she thinks, to make a difference for these kids.
Of course, because this is a Turn of the Screw adaptation, the beautiful, wildly intelligent children — Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things, It) as Miles Fairchild and Brooklyn Prince (The Florida Project) as his sister Flora — verge on sadistic, the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), is deeply disapproving, and ghosts torture the living. By the end, the audience is left wondering alongside Kate what's real and what isn't.
"I was such a fan of the novella," Davis told SYFY WIRE. "I read it in university and loved it and found it quite timeless, even though it was written over 100 years ago. … Obviously you want [the film] to be good — it's not 'I love the book, so nothing else matters' — but that was the initial thing that excited me. And then the script was amazing. And Floria had such a beautiful sort of aesthetic way into this really interior story, which felt like such a good pairing."
The Turning is not the novella's first adaptation, nor will it be the last, but this movie does set itself apart by taking place in the 1990s rather than the 1800s. Critical response has been less than stellar (the film is entering premiere weekend with a 19 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), with many critics noting that the time change serves more for aesthetic purposes — Kate's got a grunge-chic sense of fashion and Miles runs around in Kurt Cobain-esque sweaters and strums angstily at a guitar — than any sort of reflection on modern anxieties, of which there would be plenty to explore.
As Davis points out, the story has always served as a good lens through which to explore social issues. The story doesn't do the work — you, the viewer, are supposed to.
"The timelessness comes from it being a very open-ended story that implicates the audience more than it tells you what's scary right now," Davis explains. "The end of the story leaves you wondering, 'Who is this person, this narrator who guided you through this whole story?' And you thought you could trust her, but at the very end, all of a sudden nothing that you saw before was exactly as you thought.
"And that uncertainty and that kind of implication of an audience will become a litmus test to any generation that is the new audience for that adaptation or interpretation," she continues. "Because each audience is going to have a different set of social anxieties and fears and things that have to remain unspoken and that they're not able to speak about right now."
She points to the "murky relationship" between Miles and the terrifying gardener Quinn, with whom Miles has a nebulous connection. Just as in other adaptations, she says, "It was really dark and only hinted at, but it just couldn't be spoken of or looked at directly because it was too heavy to bear."
Sigismondi's vision also hints at that relationship, though, like much of the film, leaves any firm answers up in the air. The Turning, originally titled Haunted with director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo attached, is Sigismondi's second feature film, the first of which was 2010's music bio-drama The Runaways, starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. She cut her teeth shooting ethereal music videos for everyone from David Bowie to Rihanna, and she brings that strong visual sensibility to this adaptation.
"She thinks in images, and her expressiveness is told through painting these incredible frames in each moment of the film," Davis says of Sigismondi. "I thought that was a really youthful way in to such an interior story. … She's the most visual director I've ever worked with."
Sigismondi is the first female director to take on a direct adaptation of a story that's always been told from a woman's point of view. When asked if she thinks that makes a difference in how The Turning approaches the narrative, Davis says, "Yeah, but I think some things are less direct than we want to make them."
She continues: "I mean we don't need more women directors because they're the only ones who can tell women's stories, it's just that there's such a glut of a certain type of director — male and older, although we also keep bringing in younger versions of the same — and having a different point of view is inherently interesting.
"It's a different tone," she says of the film. "It's not like she's directing from exclusively a female point of view, but she has something that another standard-issue director type might not have. It's only better because we need newness and we need new people to tell stories, but it's not better because she's a woman, it's just important to create space for many many voices to tell stories. I never think there's a 1:1 ratio with this stuff."
The Turning is now in theaters.