Written by: Michael Goldbach and Chris Sparling (screenplay), Lois Duncan (novel)
Directed by: Rodrigo Cortés
Starring: AnnaSophia Robb, Uma Thurman, and Victoria Moroles
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Welcome to Blackwood, where lost girls find their way.
Two generations of young adult fiction converge with Down a Dark Hall, an adaptation of Lois Duncan’s novel brought to the screen by producer Stephanie Meyer. And although we have no shortage of this sort of thing at this point—a slickly mounted, slow-burn spooky ghost story—I find it hard to immediately dismiss any effort that puts Duncan’s underappreciated work in the limelight, especially when this one even features a clever riff on the familiar theme. Now the bad news, though: this particular adaptation isn’t exactly thrilling, as it amounts to…well, a slickly mounted, slow-burn spooky ghost story, not too different from the ones you’ve likely seen a dozen times before. I find it hard to feel too wound up about it either way: Down a Dark Hall is just exceedingly decent and mostly forgettable. Nothing to be outraged about, but nothing that inspires a fervent defense, either.
All of the adults in Kit Gordy’s (AnnaSophia Robb) life—her teachers, principals, guidance counselors, even her parents—have tagged her with the dreaded “troubled” label. She’s moody, wears a lot of black clothing, and even has a nose-ring—full of trouble, clearly. After her principal accuses her of trying to burn down the school, her exasperated mother (Kirsty Mitchell) has had enough: Kit has to go somewhere, and luckily enough, a representative from the Blackwood Boarding School is on hand to extend an invitation to the secluded, elite institution. Lorded over by enigmatic headmistress Madame Duret, Blackwood is pitched as haven for wayward youth, and four other “troubled” girls soon join Kit. With the exception of the spooky digs (all of the girls seem to see or hear something odd), everything is swell, at least at first: not only does each student discover a latent talent, but they also excel at them to an almost preternatural degree. Obviously, it’s too good to be true, as a horrible conspiracy lurks beneath these abilities since Blackwood is (wait for it) not what it seems.
As trite as that general revelation is, the details are at least distinctive enough to warrant praise. The stretch where things actually go well for the characters is a playful little puzzle urged on by a sense of intrigue and discovery as each girl discovers her new talents. One becomes a math whiz, while another is suddenly capable of crafting breathtaking poetry; Kit herself suddenly realizes her childhood piano lessons have primed her to become a great musician after all. For about 30 minutes, Down a Dark Hall is less a horror movie and more the stuff of YA fantasy or even comic books, with most of the girls bonding over their shared abilities (and totally ogling their fresh out of college music teacher). It almost feels like an offbeat coming-of-age movie (or maybe Harry Potter lite) unfolding in the shadow of a haunted house of sorts because one thing is never in doubt: Blackwood is creepy as hell. Not only does that aforementioned music teacher reciprocate one of the girl’s affection, but his mom, Madame Duret herself, is clearly up to no good. (Remarkably, this scuzzy teacher emerges as the hero, in a truly bewildering development.)
True to its title, Down a Dark Hall takes a familiar turn into darkly-lit corridors, mysterious noises, and fleeting shadows dancing upon the wall. To its credit, it at least has the potential to be a fun, possibly even unhinged riff on this theme since it boasts Uma Thurman as a wicked headmistress hatching an insidious plot to hijack her pupils’ bodies. The story might resort to standard possession stuff, but Duncan’s original text provides a nice spin on the motivation that helps it stand out in a crowd—if just barely. Unfortunately, it just meekly emerges from the lineup, reveals its hand, and curtsies back into place: there’s nagging feeling that director Rodrigo Cortés never completely unleashes the tale’s full potential. His restraint is nice, maybe even admirable—to a point; eventually, however, there’s only the sensation of sputtering along like a rudderless boat coasting on familiar beats and plot points. Thurman—and some of her conspirators at Blackwood—is clearly having fun, but not enough of it to spark this movie to life.
It’s a shame, too, because Down a Dark Hall features a nice cast of characters and performers committed to making this more than an empty spook show. The script tasks Robb with a tricky roll, one that requires her to find the vulnerable, remorseful girl lurking beneath Kit’s hardened “bad girl” façade. She pulls it off quite well: almost immediately, it’s clear that Kit is impetuous but also wildly misunderstood, mostly because her act is compensating for the loss of her father, who died in an accident when she was a child. Having never processed her grief—or the fact that he apparently appeared before her in a dream just before his death—she now lashes out, much to the dismay of her mother. Thankfully, the script refuses to just deal in absolutes here: it rightfully acknowledges that Kit’s behavior does suck without condemning her for it. Likewise, it’s sympathetic towards the mother, too, who has now remarried to a perfectly nice man; that both of them want what’s best for Kit is never in question, and, in a roundabout way, Down a Dark Hall is film about a family reconciling—albeit with the “help” of a cabal trying to channel the spirits of the dead through their daughter.
Furthermore, it’s about a group of young women bonding over shared trauma and exile, so to speak. Like Kit, each girl finds themselves dumped off at Blackwood as a last resort. Some, however, seem more hopeless than others, like Veronica (Victoria Moroles), a complete wild child who likes to introduce herself to strangers by assuring them she’ll absolutely slit their throats while they sleep. For a bit, it seems like the script is setting her up as the most obnoxious of the bunch, priming her to take a crowd-pleasing fall once shit hits the fan. Down a Dark Hall isn’t that type of film, though, as it even extends its sympathy towards this girl by revealing that she, too, is all sound and fury attempting to suppress her own insecurities. As unremarkable as that sounds, it’s a crucial development that resists the usual, predictable urges for this type of film; in fact, it almost allows it highlight the importance of healthy relationships among teenage girls before it decides to yield to the stuff of sappy family melodramas (Kit’s relationship with her father—who manifests as a ghost during the climax—is especially heavy-handed and cloying).
Of course, Down a Dark Hall is barely about anything by the end, as it resorts to emptying out the usual parade of teen horror jolts and jumps. Essentially, it splits the difference: it wants the resonant, emotional heft and the haunted house theatrics but doesn’t quite pull off either to an effective degree. As such, you’re left with a film that limps to the finish line without ever truly embracing the lurid pulp of Duncan’s paperback thriller. Like the girls shipped off the Blackwood, it’s full of unrealized potential and has been cast off in the service of generic ghost movie outbursts. Whatever imagination it boasts spills directly from Duncan’s pen and is swiftly left hung out to dry in a movie that’s too calculated and polished to leave an impression.
Down a Dark Hall is now available on Blu-ray from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.
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