Loosely based on the Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw. It’s 1994, and Kate (Mackenzie Davis) is a perky schoolteacher who is hired on to be a nanny for young orphan Flora (Brooklynn Prince), who lives in a giant, giant house with only her maid, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten). The previous au pair, Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) abruptly disappeared, which is not in the least disconcerting or suspicious. Flora’s sullen brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) joins them after being kicked out of boarding school for severely beating his classmate. The typical haunted house events occur: disembodied voices and footsteps, doors locking themselves, mannequins appearing out of nowhere. Before long, Kate is questioning her sanity.
I was aware going in that people found the movie unfavorable, not the least of them being my friend Tabbitha, who absolutely hated it, on all levels. I didn’t hate it, but I did hate the characters. Kate and her wide-eyed enthusiasm, Flora and her giggling cutesy act, Miles and his toxic masculinity (more on that in a minute), Mrs. Grose and her insistence that “The children are very special, Kate. They’re thoroughbreds.” In one scene, Kate tries to make the kids bus their own plates to the sink, and no one’s havin it, not even Mrs. Grose. The most compelling character is, as per usual, the sassy best friend of color, Rose (Kim Adis). Naturally, there are no stills of her from the movie.
The cinematography is gorgeous, and the set is gloomy and atmospheric, but the movie is just not scary. There’s one decent jump scare, and the many that come after fail to live up to it. Cliches abound, like Kate saying “This isn’t funny”. And the obligatory female character tries to relax in the bathtub but is startled scene. And the scene when a character is viciously attacked but it turns out to be a dream sequence. And the slowly creeping around to investigate mysterious noises scene–way too many of those.
Miles, who’s still in high school, is creepily sexual and dominant with Kate. Before his character shows up in person, we know that he thinks it’s funny to mutilate a mannequin’s breasts by jabbing them full of pins. Whether there actually are ghosts or if Kate is delusional is left ambiguous, but Miles is definitely being influenced by his deceased riding teacher, Quint (Niall Greig Fulton) (whose death was neither suspect nor cause for alarm). Miles is insistent on getting Kate up on a horse, leering, “Can I still give you your riding lesson tomorrow?” Quint forced himself on Miss Jessel (which we find out both by Kate hearing them and by Jessel’s unnecessarily detailed lesson plan). Miles and Kate engage in a power struggle the moment he walks in the door. Miles enjoys scaring her and completely rejects the concept of her being an authority figure. In one scene he comes into her room and touches her face while she’s sleeping.
While looking for images from the film to include in this post, I saw that one reviewer called the movie feminist. Pointing out that sexual abuse exists is not feminism, even if the film is directed by a woman. The movie is peopled by hysterical, powerless females and entitled males who subjugate them. As I said, I had warning ahead of time that I would hate it, but I felt compelled to watch it anyway and see for myself. So I won’t try to stop you. But for a palate cleanse, may I suggest Terminator: Dark Fate? It’s not a horror movie, but Mackenzie Davis’s character is much less someone whose face you want to smush. Or maybe that’s just me.
P.P.S., if you’re confused about the ending, as I was and many viewers were, here’s an explanation.