There’s something truly frightening about being trapped by omnipresent forces, with only your mind as a potential refuge – until that is infiltrated as well. No, I’m not talking about a supernatural story. I’m talking about the wasteland that is January movie releases. This savage month claims another soul with the release of The Turning – a ghost tale that aims to inspire doubt in the audience on whether they can trust what they see on screen.

The film is based on the 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. In the original text, the protagonist is haunted by disturbing images while looking after two children. The novel’s slight of hand is to leave it ambiguous as to whether what the protagonist witnesses is actually happening or of their own mind. Does the film have similar goals, and will it be used to question the audience’s stance between sanity and the supernatural? Does it even matter?

We’re introduced to Kate (Mackenzie Davis), a young 20-something who’s planning to move from the big city to a remote estate where she will be the caretaker for two young children, Flora and Miles. Her roommate begs her not to go, but Kate is compelled because the children are orphans. Meanwhile, in a bizarre footnote, we learn in this same scene that the film takes place during the mid 1990s. Why are the 90s the setting, you may be asking? Well… it’s because… So Kate moves into her new home, a massive mansion in a secluded area, replete with fields and a barn. She’s caught up to speed on the status quo by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), before meeting Flora (Brooklynn Prince) who is angelically creepy.

We learn that the previous caretaker left under suspicious circumstances, alluding to something quite sinister at play here. Kate begins to believe she’s seeing things in the house, but has to question her own sanity given her own mother’s current bout with mental illness. Is it hereditary or is the house actually haunted? To the film’s credit, the early scenes are appropriately spooky – aides by a good score and director Floria Sigismondi’s haunting atmosphere. The movie just refuses to go anywhere after that, despite the window dressing.

The first sign that the action is about to pick up is the introduction of Miles (Finn Wolfhard), Flora’s teen brother. Miles is a bratty nuisance and clashes almost instantly with Kate. To accentuate the conflict, Wolfhard is really trying to chew the scenery and establish the character’s eccentricity, but it never comes together for anything entertaining or novel. At times, his performance is so out of tune with the rest of the story that he might as well be in a different movie, but that movie isn’t necessarily a good one. He’s not intimidating, or funny, nor does he elicit any type of ironic enjoyment of a performance that borders on camp.

The two brats play pranks on Kate, all while she struggles to discern is their just normal kids or if the children are influenced by the dark spirits in the house. But the attempts at ambiguity can only inspire apathy. This is because nothing valuable is at stake for the audience. The backstory on what’s transpired in the house does not inspire fear or fascination. Kate’s relationship with her mother is too broadly defined, and their scenes together too brief to forge a meaningful understanding of their history and current dynamic.

As a result of the bare-bones storytelling, we’re trapped with characters we barely know in a conflict that lacks weight and interest.  Meanwhile, the film’s themes on sanity and death fall flat. Early on, we’re made aware that Kurt Cobain has recently committed suicide. Perhaps the movie is trying to plant some sort of idea involving death and mental health by referencing the late musician’s own struggle with mental health. But there’s no reference point for why Kate and her mother are mentally wounded, making the potential comparison feel cheap and unearned.

There is the sense that some context was left on the cutting room floor, as the film feels a bit truncated. But it’s hard to imagine what additional scenes could aid a story that, from the ground-up, has no base to stand tall. At one point, Miles kills a wounded fish, expressing that he doesn’t want to see it suffer. If only the audience was afforded such mercy.