“Have you ever been a live-in governess?” asks Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), the stern-faced housekeeper of an eerily empty mansion.
“No, not since the 1800s,” replies Kate (Mackenzie Davis), the teacher who has agreed to tutor the orphaned 7-year-old girl, Flora (Brooklynn Prince), who lives there.
Credit to the makers of “The Turning” for putting an excuse up front for any anachronisms instead of going to ludicrous lengths to modernize Henry James’ 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” which in this loose riff, courtesy of the veteran music-video director Floria Sigismondi, has been updated to 1994. (When Kate is introduced, Kurt Cobain’s death is in the news.)
It’s the movie’s open-endedness and literary vestiges that sit uneasily with its repetitive goosings, which manifest in exceedingly familiar ways. Ghosts appearing in mirrors. A mannequin that moves on its own. It’s-only-a-dream moments. A bad seed, of sorts, in the form of Flora’s brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), who startles Kate by showing up in the middle of the night (boo!) after being expelled from boarding school. “The Turning” has it all.
It also has Davis, too skilled an actress to be reduced to miming ashen poses as her character unravels mentally from fright. (Note to self: Playing flashlight tag in a potentially haunted house is a bad idea.) And it has Prince, as much a live wire here as she was in “The Florida Project.” The introduction Flora gives Kate to the estate grounds is almost as fun as the one she gives of the motel in that movie.
But what follows in “The Turning” is humorless — and scare-free.
“The Turning,” with Barbara Marten, Mackenzie Davis, Brooklynn Prince, Finn Wolfhard. Directed by Floria Sigismondi, from a screenplay by Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes, based on the novel by Henry James. 94 minutes. Rated PG-13 for terror, violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some suggestive content. Opens Jan. 24 at multiple theaters. The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.