*. I suppose it might have been good. But then, probably not. The novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a timeless piece of work. And the first film adaptation, The Innocents (1961) is a classic that is still one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. You’d think they might have let things go at that.
*. But 2020 would see not one, not two, but three new adaptations: this movie, a New Zealand production that builds off the idea of an actress appearing in a stage version of the story, and the Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Bly Manor. Suddenly the old tale was back in vogue.
*. The year is 1994. Why 1994? I’m not sure. It seems somehow related to the passing of Kurt Cobain. But the date raises another point: why set this movie in modern times at all when you’re planning on keeping all the Victorian (or Edwardian) trappings of the giant manor house and the horses and the antique dolls? Let’s face it, when Kate arrives at the big house here she’s basically entering a time warp anyway.
*. We start off with an overhead car shot, which gives you some idea of the clichés to come. There’s a lot of creeping around the old house with a flashlight. There’s a scary scene where Kate the new . . . governess? tutor? . . . is in a bathtub. A sewing machine starts up by itself. Kate looks for something scary under her bed. Scary things are seen in a mirror that aren’t really there. There are scary dolls and mannequins. Kate jumps straight up in bed after having a nightmare . . . several times. There are jump scares, accompanied by loud noises on the soundtrack, that are so predictable I was saying out loud “Come on and give me the jump scare, I’m tired of waiting.”
*. On the matter of that last point, it came in a scene that sort of echoes the brilliant moment in The Innocents where the governess sees the ghostly form of Miss Jessell across a pond. You get something like this, and I thought it might be built up but then we get the jump scare that I was calling for and Kate gets dragged into the pond and it’s all very dumb and not scary at all.
*. Mackenzie Davis plays Kate. I spent most of the time thinking how much she looked liked Kristen Stewart, and how that meant that there’s now a template for such women these days. Miles and Flora, the two kids, are Finn Wolfhard and Brooklyn Prince. Yes, really. They had to cast those two based on their names alone, right? Anyway, Prince is fine but mop-top Wolfhard fails to project any of the sense of corrupted innocence the part calls for.
*. The film was shot at Killruddery House, which is in Ireland. It is ginormous, but apparently the elderly Miss Jessel lives there alone with little Flora. Honestly. We don’t see any groundskeepers or handymen or anybody else at all. This makes no sense!
*. The DVD includes a featurette on the making of the movie. Mackenzie tells us that the director’s “ideas for how to take some of the Victorian themes from the novella were really interesting, especially along the lines of toxic masculinity.” Wait, what? Well, I guess Peter Quint was a bounder, and he may have passed some of this along to Miles, though I tend to see the abuse that occurred differently. But there’s more! Here’s director Floria Sigismondi: “My take on the book is a very female one, and I wanted to explore the ideas of the #MeToo generation.” Huh? This is a #MeToo movie? What ideas is she talking about?
*. Oh and here’s producer Scott Bernstein plugging into the same set of buzzwords: “Based in a world of female empowerment and women standing up for themselves, a really powerful female character at the center of this is really timely.” By this point I was well and truly baffled. I don’t see James’s story, or this movie, as being much about toxic masculinity or #MeToo, and as for powerful female characters and empowerment there’s the slight problem that Kate is a total basket case.
*. Then again, maybe they had a different idea about how we’re supposed to read Kate. It’s hard to tell because the ending is rather ambiguous. I think we have to see Kate as having lost her marbles though, as that’s an angle that’s really played up by introducing us to her mother and having her looking progressively crazier. Then there’s an alternate ending included with the DVD which is quite a bit different but almost as obscure and a lot worse. As with all these movies that are made with multiple endings, my sense is that they really didn’t know what they were trying to do. That’s harsh, but the end of a movie should fit perfectly with everything that’s gone before. If you’re not sure how the movie should end then that’s a strong indication that you never knew what it was about in the first place.
*. Not much point beating up on a movie that nobody seemed to like. My sense is that people were pulling in different directions on this one and they ended up with a bunch of pieces that didn’t go together. Plus, even accepting that this is the ’90s, everyone needed a better haircut and some nicer clothes.