Kate enjoyed teaching in a classroom. But frankly, the idea of being a governess for a wounded little 7-year-old girl who’d lost both her parents, well, that just called to her. Kate … needed to do it. Maybe it was because Kate herself had been abandoned when she was a girl. After her mother went insane and her father packed up and ran away, life wasn’t easy for a young girl on her own.
Young, anchorless girls need protection. And love.
Of course, when Kate drives into the sprawling old country estate, that has its share of appeal, too. Sure, things are a bit tattered and run down since only a frowning old housekeeper and a few part-time caretakers care for the mansion and the grounds. But the estate and its sprawling acres of lawns, fountains and koi ponds remains quite impressive, nonetheless.
As for that little girl, Flora, well she’s sweet … though a bit strange. And the girl’s older brother, Miles—who shows up after being expelled from his boarding school—is a downright sandpaper irritant. But maybe that’s because they’re from money. Or as Mrs. Grose, the lemon-faced housekeeper, puts it: they’re privileged “thoroughbreds.”
That thoroughbred declaration doesn’t sit too well with Kate, especially as Miles starts giving her a flippant, I’ll-do-as-I-please attitude and shows up in the dead of night sitting on her bedside. But the kids have lost both their parents. And if nothing else, that means they deserve some extra understanding.
One other little thing niggles at Kate, however, that has nothing to do with childish misbehavior. The old house, with its creaking wood floors, unexplained sounds in the night and (scurrying?) shadows in the long hallways is, well, unnerving. Kate’s never lived in someplace this big and old before. Still, there’s something more, something spooky about the place.
Secretly, though, Kate is starting to wonder if her unease is being caused by something else altogether. I mean, her mother is a headcase. Could the stress of this new job be bringing out similar, uh, genetic traits that have been hidden in Kate for a very long time? She’d almost welcome a few actual ghosts over that rationale.
Oh well, things will settle down, she tells herself. She’ll get used to her surroundings. She’ll work things out with the kids and the housekeeper.
It’ll all be just great, real soon. You’ll see.
Kate consistently strives to do what’s best for Flora. She’ll endure and forgive almost anything to help this little girl. And Miles sincerely loves his little sister, too. But those affections are the really the positives of note in this otherwise disquieting, pointless film.
Ghostly apparitions materialize out of the shadows, as well as in mirrors and windows. They glide through murky ponds, and in and out of dank forests. In a few cases, a spirit form even causes harm; and in one case, someone’s death. Inanimate objects seemingly come to life from time to time, too.
In what might best be described as a ghostly cross between an unwanted grope and something like a sexual assault, we see disembodied hands crawl all over Kate’s back and chest, roughly grabbing at her and tearing the fabric of her sweater. In like manner, similar “spirit hands” briefly caress Flora’s head and shoulders while she sits reading.
[Spoiler Warning] None of those spectral happening are ever clearly explained, but instead left purposely vague so as to suggest that they may have all happened in a dreamlike state. (Though, truthfully, even that intentional ambiguity is inconsistent and poorly executed.)
We see Kate in sheer nightgowns and sitting naked in a bathtub full of murky water (though only her back, legs and shoulders are exposed). Miles shows up in the middle of the night in sleeping Kate’s bedroom and reaches out to lightly caress her face. She wakes with a start, and they talk. Then he quickly leans in to kiss her on the cheek.
Miles talks to a “special friend” in a mirror, and Miles then whispers to Kate that the entity thinks her tattoo is sexy. Kate discovers a polaroid snapshot of a woman’s badly bruised backside and another of the woman sleeping in a cleavage-baring top. (It’s implied that both were taken without the woman’s knowledge.)
We see a spectral image of a fully dressed woman being raped and strangled to death. Nothing critical is shown, but it’s very clear what’s going on. A woman is shoved off a high staircase and smashes down into a broken heap below. We see a woman being grabbed by a large man. Her mottled and swollen body is later found at the bottom of a pond.
Over the course of several nightmares, Kate dreams of being roughly grabbed and smashed into a mirror and manhandled by different people. While playing a game in a darkened room, she’s also shoved around and hit in the face hard enough to give her a nosebleed. Kate also dreams of a murdered woman with bleeding eyes; some of that blood drips onto Kate’s cheek. Miles picks up a spider and smashes it in his fist. In another scene, he drops a spider into a glass tank where it’s quickly snatched up and consumed by a large tarantula.
We’re told that Flora saw her parents die in a car crash just outside the estate’s front gate. Subsequently, she refuses to ever leave the grounds. In one scene in which Kate attempts to drive the girl into town, Flora writhes and screams as if in physical pain. We’re also told that Miles was expelled from school because he fought with another student and slammed the kid’s head into the tiled floor of the bathroom.
Miles exhibits an obvious sadistic streak. We see him whipping a horse repeatedly during a riding lesson. When Kate discovers a dressmaker’s mannequin with a dozen stick pins jammed into its chest, Flora reports that Miles was the culprit. And when a bird pulls a koi fish out of a pond and begins eating it (with the torn fish flesh shown up close), Miles walks over and savagely stomps on the flailing fish with the heel of his shoe. He screams that he’ll kill Kate when the woman upsets his sister. And in a similar vein, the boy whispers threateningly to Kate, “I know what you’re afraid of. Keeping your lights on won’t keep you safe.”
One f-word joins a use or two each of “h—,” “geez” and “oh my god!”
We’re told that a man died when falling off his horse while drunk. And it’s casually implied that one of the adults in the manor used to give Miles alcohol, too.
While Kate is in his room, Miles walks into an adjoining bathroom and urinates (just off camera) while leaving the bathroom door open.
Are there really ghosts haunting the shadowed corridors, darkened rooms and dingy grounds of this ancient, unkempt estate? Or are you simply quite insane?
That spooky concept has been woven into horror stories and films for ages. And The Turning—a modernized twist on Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw—stitches that time-tattered story thread into its fabric once more.
But for all of its atmospheric creepiness and believably acted fright, the film itself is a ham-fisted, unfocused and, at times, ugly mess. The Turning offers a collection of dirty-mirror jump scenes in search of a point. Or a message. Or a story.
I mean, even if you love deep-shadowed, floor-creaking shutter thumping so much that you’re willing to forgo anything interesting or involving, you’ll still have to sit through misogynistic torment as well as ghostly depictions of rape and murder.
A good read of an old classic will serve you far better.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.