One of the first things to happen in The Turning is that Kurt Cobain dies.* This has nothing to do with anything that follows: Cobain never becomes a plot point, and there's no Nirvana on the soundtrack (though there is some Courtney Love). But it does let us know, right away, that this story takes place in 1994. And this also has nothing to do with anything that follows. They don't even seem to have gotten around to telling costume designer Leonie Prendergast. But it's right there, front and center, inviting us to spend the remainder of the movie's thankfully trim 94-minute running time wondering why this has happened. Why set an adaptation of Henry James's 1898 Gothic horror novella The Turn of the Screw in a time period as fundamentally incompatible with Gothic horror as the late 20th Century? It would be no more appropriate to set it in 2020 (or 2019, when the film was originally set to be released), but at least it would feel comfortably lazy. Dropping it into 1994 is, like, a choice.

At any rate, if you know the book, or the exquisite 1961 film adaptation The Innocents, the story of The Turning will be passably recognisable. James's nameless governess is christened "Kate Mandell" (Mackenzie Davis) this time around, and she's been hired, right before the main action of the story begins, to serve as the live-in tutor to Flora Fairchild (Brooklynn Prince), one of the two orphan children of some unimaginably wealthy family living somewhere in what is presumably New England (the film was shot in Ireland). Flora has been living alone with the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), ever since the last governess, Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) fled mysteriously one night; we saw this happen in the opening scene, so we know more than anybody tells Kate, that Jessel was attacked by a leering, bearded man whom we'll eventually learn is named Quint (Niall Greig Fulton).

The Fairchild estate is a preposterously clammy-looking heap of ancient wealth, with every single underlit nook and cranny filled to bursting with the kind of morbid decor that serves no purpose other than to freak out young women who are just looking around (the replica mannequin of Flora's severe-looking great-grandmother staring at Kate's bed being an especially egregious example), so Kate is already on edge from day one; day two makes things even worse, as Flora's older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) shows up, having been expelled from boarding school. This version of Miles has been aged up a little bit, pushing him more comfortably into his teenage years, and that brings with it a more aggressively hostile surliness to his dealings with Kate, who is immediately cowed by the arrogant, over-privileged youth.

So far, so adequate, and as long as The Turning was idling in its exposition phase, it's at least watchable. The seeds of what will eventually blossom into a movie that's dreadful even by the standards of January horror have already been planted and some of them are sprouting, but under the care of production designer Paki Smith and art director Nigel Pollock (who have rock-solid bonafides in film design; Smith worked in the same capacity on 2018's In Fabric, Pollock on 2015's High-Rise) Fairchild Manor at least has the goods as an ambiguously haunted house. It's sprawling in a way that mostly feels like something that could plausibly exist in the world, with some bizarrely self-obsessed American family attempting to position itself as a new aristocracy and wildly overcompensating with massive oil paintings of dead relatives looming over conspicuously winding stairs. There are too many rooms and all of them are decaying and cobwebby. It might make very little sense to play the Gothic horror card the way this film plays it, but at least it's suitably Gothic.

Even this pleasure cannot survive how absurdly poorly The Turning has been made. The film has two credited editors, Duwayne Dunham (David Lynch's on-and-off guy; he cut the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks) and Glenn Garland (Rob Zombie's guy), and it is my strong suspicion that they did not work together; this has the very distinct feeling of a movie that was broken in post-production. There are an uncountable number of weird little cuts that are rhythmically discordant, with conversations jerking along, but the bigger problem is how badly it connects scenes and locations. It gets much worse near the end, including one moment where Kate seems ready to head into a tense setpiece before it's suddenly the next day and nothing has happened. But even before that, the geography of the house is completely inscrutable: every time Kate turns a corner, she's in some new drafty hall, which themselves grow increasingly baroque in thoroughly idiotic way (my favorite: the Room of Dead Vines in the basement).

As for the story being told through this style (or, y'know, not), it's an utter disaster. The Turn of the Screw, famously, can be interpreted in a tremendous number of ways, starting with the big question: is this house haunted by Jessel and Quint, who are trying to possess the children, or is the governess just that neurotic from the mountains of misogynistic Victorian repression she's buried under. And then there are any number of ways to tease out what may have happened based on either of those possibilities. The Turning has apparently concluded that it likes all of these interpretations so much that it's going to go with all of them simultaneously, and it's going to add a new one: Kate's mother (Joely Richardson) is in a mental institution, and so Kate lives in constant fear of inheriting Mom's madness. The result is an inscrutable slurry, which benefits no story beat and no character arc, with Wolfhard getting the worst of it: he's obliged to play Miles as at least four different, incompatible figures, generally more than one at a time. But nobody comes out clean: Prince at least has nothing to do other than the old "uncomfortably jolly child who then turns suddenly serious and vaguely threatening" routine, and she hits that cliché well enough, but Davis is visibly struggling to figure out what the film wants of her character, and Marten gives up, sticking with an all-purpose "ominous corpse-woman" approach no matter what the scene.

The sloppy, omnidirectional approach that the filmmakers employ, under the hapless guidance of director Floria Sigismondi (whose most interesting choice in the film is to put her name in the opening credits in a red font, after all the other cast and crew have been white), culminates in a final few minutes that literally has to be seen to be believed. By which I mean, I had been spoiled in some detail as to what happened, and I still got completely blindsided by how dumbfounding the... can't call it an "ending". How dumbfounding the stopping point is, let's say. Coupled with Dunham's presence, it's tempting to suggest that they were hoping, in the absence of any sort of actual purpose or clear angle on the material, to make this the Mulholland Dr. of Henry James adaptations, but without anything like competence, so after a couple nested mindfucks, the film just trips its way into the end credits - which themselves appear to be a different scene in a different movie. All of The Turning is shit, but the anti-ending still manages to push it over the top. Or under the bottom. Or whatever the hell it is.

*Technically, the thing that happens is that Kurt Cobain is buried, but six of one, half-dozen of the other.