[Review] THE TURNING (2020)

@craiggors

While I think the horror industry is slowly but surely re-marketing January releases from “dumping ground” to “decent films,” there’s still a long road ahead before that shift in public perception can take a justifiable hold, and The Turning (2020) is a certainly a stumbling block on the path of this noble quest. It’s a shame because the film keeps ahold of itself for the majority of its runtime and only truly drops the ball in the final act; but it’s a fumble so disastrous there’s absolutely no way to save the game afterwards.

Directed by Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways) from a screenplay by Chad and Carey W. Hayes (The Conjuring, House of Wax) and based off the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), the film follows Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis) as she accepts the post of live-in nanny to Miles (Finn Wolfhard) and Flora (Brooklyn Prince) Fairchild in their sprawling, palatial estate in upstate Maine. Kate is excited at the chance to help two orphaned youngsters flourish and grow despite their hardships, but she soon discovers that neither of the children is as innocent as they appear and that they, and their dark, foreboding home, are sheltering dark secrets.

Negative reception of the film aside, no one can fault the acting. Wolfhard is solid if a bit strange channeling his creepy, pervy side as Miles, and Prince is an energetic scene-stealer who can hold her own against Davis, who delivers a convincing, relatable performance of a woman with all the best intentions going up against a dangerous situation she can’t fully comprehend. Davis is one of those actresses who knows her craft and what she needs to do in order to amp up subpar material, yet still can’t seem to get a foothold in Hollywood proper. I fear this movie may not do her any favors, though from a technical standpoint it’s far from abysmal.

There’s some good work going on in The Turning outside of the performances, as well. Cinematographer David Ungaro frames some interesting, well-constructed shots throughout, and the production design of the house and the spirits make for some cool, spooky imagery. Sure the movie is chock full of tropes, and the majority of the scares are easy-to-predict jump ones, but at least it’s fun to look at. As others have pointed out, the true fault of the film is the screenplay, though I think it may be more accurate to pinpoint the ridiculous ending. It’s honestly not an awful film for the first two acts to the point where I caught myself in the theater wondering why the early reviews were so dismal and then the “ending” hit and I chided myself for being too trusting.

I use quotation marks not out of a sense of snobbish disdain, but because the closing moments of The Turning are some of the worst excuses for an ending I’ve ever seen. I can see what Sigismondi and the writers were going for–attempting to put a twist on the ambiguity so essential and infamous from James’s original novella–but they fail spectacularly. Instead, we’re left with an illogical and inane closing that feels like a poorly timed joke your least favorite uncle tells over Thanksgiving dinner. It’s so nonsensical and just plain dumb that it brings what would have otherwise been an average if watchable movie down into the depths of horror’s “worst of” category. The only thing I’ll give it is that it elicited physical reactions from almost everyone in my theater, though it was mainly groaning and exclamations of phrases one shouldn’t use in polite blogging.

The Turning is a movie with a good cast and a strong foundation ruined by an ending so baffling it leaves one irritated and wondering what could have been if original producer Steven Spielberg had stayed attached and brought forth a proper adaptation of one of the greatest psychological horror stories of all time. Instead, we’re left with a tropey showpiece that wasted time and talent, not to mention money. Mike Flanagan’s upcoming The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix lessens the sting somewhat, but it’s still best to turn away from this one and pretend you didn’t see a thing.

The Turning

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #5: TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID (2017)

@craiggors

One of the buzziest releases of the year, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a haunting, dark fairy tale that uses striking cinematography and dynamite special effects to explore childhood trauma through the lens of magical realism. It’s a film unafraid to go to dark places and dig in deep, showcasing a kind of horror that is at once all too real and the stuff of our worst collective nightmares: the violent death of children.

Estrella (Paola Larsa) is a young girl living with her mother in a city gutted and devastated by the Mexican Drug War. When her school is shot up during a gang skirmish, Estrella is gifted three pieces of magical chalk by her teacher. Each piece will grant her one wish. After her mother vanishes, Estrella uses her first wish bring her back, unaware of what she has awoken. Estrella’s mother does indeed return, only as a terrifying specter of her former self, causing Estrella to take to the streets and join up with a coterie of homeless boys led by cynical, traumatized Shine (Juan Ramon López). In them, Estrella finds friendship, protection, and a chance to uncover what really happened to her mother.

Tigers is stuffed to the gills with talent, from the lovable and believable child actors to the smooth, succinct script that not only blends the fantastical with gritty reality, but also balances full-body terror with moments of heart and humor. The production design is also breathtaking, and the special effects used to create the wraith-like ghosts and Shine’s graffiti tigers blend seamlessly into the real, an impressive fear given the film’s relatively modest budget.

You’d never know that Tigers was made on the cheap, so rich and well crafted is the atmosphere and the techniques used to bring the story to life, often to chilling effect. The makeup of the undead ghouls that shadow Estrella, and the swerving, seemingly sentient trail of blood that slithers and snakes behind her after her first wish unnerve and unsettle, leaving us squirming with visions of horrific deaths and a pervading sense of wrongness. Combine all this with an excellent cast perfectly attuned to their roles and the result is one of the year’s most essential films.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is a magical, momentous film that uses its supernatural elements not for cheap jump scares, but to heighten the human drama at the center of the story and the question of how desperate children survive in a dangerous and violent world when stripped of their support networks. As such, it is a tale of resilience and defiance in the face of destruction–as the film’s ominous and menacing tone make clear–but it is also about the power of hope that can be sparked in a shared human experience, and the transcendent magic that can arise if that spark is fueled properly. See this film at your earliest convenience. Find your chalk. Don’t be afraid.

Tigers Are Not Afraid

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror