At my age, I’m very much the product of the Kevin Williamson age of horror. This mean I was there when Scream was all the rage and being self-aware was a fresh take on the genre. Teen horror was making money and I definitely took that love into my reading materials. Yes, I was a fan of R.L. Stine, but Williamson introduced me to the novels of Lois Duncan thanks to a certain movie called I Know What You Did Last Summer. While the original novel didn’t have any violence (and probably not even a body count), Wiliamson turned it into a pop culture phenomenon slasher starring some of the hottest young stars. Williamson is still a big name in the game, especially with the great success of the CW series The Vampire Diaries. These days, horror is all over the place. Not that I’m complaining since I’m into all the subgenres, but it’s difficult to know by a trailer when something is going to take itself too seriously or not seriously at all. What sometimes gets lost is something that feels different or a variation of another franchise.
Director Rodrigo Cortes (Red Lights) gives us the latest adaptation of a Duncan novel with DOWN A DARK HALL. Starring the ever evolving talent AnnaSophia Robb as Kit, DARK HALL takes viewers to the Blackwoods Boarding School, where a select group of troubled girls get sent to explore their hidden talents and be rehabilitated for society as adults. However, it’s clear right off the bat that there’s something else hidden within these walls and a history that proves the school to possibly not be the safest place.
There’s also the headmistress, Madame Duret, played by Uma Thurman in a performance that’s as if Eva Green played Isabella Rossellini in Death Becomes Her. She at times moves reptilian like and I was waiting for a revelation that she is some kind of shape shifter, but *SPOILER ALERT* she’s not. She carries a thick accent of a French artist and the patience for these girls that is kind of irritating. The mystery lies in what is her true purpose for this school and how are all these new students connected to that agenda.
The first half really plays as the darker side of Harry Potter as these girls venture through the halls and it begins to feel magical in a more sinister fashion. Kit sees shadowy figures watching them but nothing’s there when the lights go on. The other girls start acting differently as class progresses, but some are more vulnerable than others.
The school is gorgeous to look at and reminiscent of old school haunted house movies where the building itself feels like a monster watching over you. There’s a couple great scares, but the film is tonally challenged. Does it want us to be scared? Are we supposed to be laughing? Is this supposed to provide that fantasy fun rush that made the Harry Potter movies so successful? Thurman may have the impressive resume, but AnnaSophia Robb shines as the star of DOWN A DARK HALL. She utilizes the material to her advantage and creates a young woman with a troubled past who can survive on her own without making it an obvious statement. She really just wants to do the right thing and sometimes makes mistakes.
The concept is definitely marketable (proven by the intriguing trailers) but it’s clear that those behind-the-scenes were unclear as to who this movie is for.