Henry James’s classic 1898 ghost story The Turn of the Screw is splodged with unsubtlety in this jump-scary new screen version, wasting a lot of acting talent. It is a bag of very familiar horror tricks from the screenwriting brothers Chad and Carey Hayes, who scripted so-so chillers such as The Reaping (2007) and The Conjuring (2013), and it’s directed by Floria Sigismondi.
The Hayeses top off their by-the-numbers movie with a bizarre trick ending that explains their take on James’s title – sort of – and messes with the timeline in a way that’s certainly unexpected, yet exasperatingly contrived and involves suddenly and unsatisfyingly promoting a minor character. This finale may also be there to set up a pointless new franchise: The Turning 2, 3 etc.
It’s set in the 1990s (we kick off with a reference to Kurt Cobain) in a creepy old manor house supposedly in Maine. This is a place with, in Withnail’s words, the kind of windows that faces look in at. And this they duly do, screamingly, pretty much every few minutes.
Mackenzie Davis does her intelligent, assured best with the role of Kate, a young woman improbably hired in the olden-days job of “governess” (as opposed to, say, live-in nanny-slash-tutor) to two orphans in a remote mansion: 10-year-old Flora (a sparky Brooklynn Prince) and her stroppy teen brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard).
The only other adult present is the fierce, gaunt housekeeper Mrs Grose (good stuff from Barbara Marten). But it soon becomes clear that these eerie children had a very close relationship to the former governess, Miss Jessel, and former riding instructor Quint, whose awful fate lingers supernaturally in the gloomy corridors.
This film makes explicit the implied sexuality in the original, which isn’t necessarily a wrong thing to do at all, but everything is very ham-fisted and crass, with nothing like the ambiguous shimmer of the original story or the style and elegance of the 1961 Jack Clayton film version, The Innocents, with Deborah Kerr, and it almost entirely loses the exquisitely disturbing sense of children being able to see ghosts and keeping that a secret from the grownups. A weirdly spiritless film.
• The Turning is released in the UK on 24 January and in the US and Australia on 25 January.