By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring AnnaSophia Robb, Uma Thurman and Isabelle Fuhrman
Directed by Rodrigo Cortés
Written by Mike Goldbach and Chris Sparling
DOWN A DARK HALL is based on a 1974 novel by YA-thriller queen Lois Duncan, whose I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER was loosely adapted into the teen-slasher hit. Though it also focuses on high-school-age heroines, DOWN A DARK HALL belongs to a more classical horror tradition and will likely be better appreciated by older audiences.
It’s also a change of pace for director Rodrigo Cortés and screenwriter Chris Sparling (working from an earlier script by Mike Goldbach), who broke out with the topical confinement thriller BURIED. Here, the tone is full-bore Gothic, set at the shadowy Blackwood Academy, an enormous mansion located in the middle of nowhere with only a dirt road for access. When Uma Thurman appears as black-clad Blackwood headmistress Madame Duret, wrapping her tongue around an imperious mittel-European accent, informs her newly arrived students that the electricity is down and then reassures, “Your eye will adjust, I assure you,” you know you’re in for 90-odd minutes of good, pulpy, spooky melodrama.
The first of the small, all-girl class to arrive is Kit (AnnaSophia Robb), who is troubled by dreams of her deceased father and has been acting up to the extent that she is sent to Blackwood to straighten her out. (Coincidentally, HALL is the first of two movies with this concept opening this month; the similarly themed if differently pitched BOARDING SCHOOL arrives on August 31.) Once Izzy (ORPHAN’s Isabelle Fuhrman, underused), Veronica (Victoria Moroles), Sierra (Rosie Day) and Ashley (Taylor Russell) have joined Kit, they are relieved of their cell phones, told there’s no Internet and introduced to the teachers who will instruct them in the finer arts—painting and music—as well as mathematics and literature. Already prone to rebellion, the girls chafe at their restrictive circumstances and the domineering Duret, though for Kit, there’s some compensation in the fact that Jules (Noah Silver), the piano teacher and Duret’s son, is a handsome specimen who practically wraps himself around her as she plays a dramatic piece, and takes her out in the woods so they can experience the music of nature together.
Kit turns out to be an unexpected prodigy of the ivories, and each of the other girls demonstrates a surprising gift at a particular subject. They appear overcome by a spirit that compels them to violently attack their fortes—and also to occasionally suffer hallucinatory, frightening visions. Something supernatural is afoot at Blackwood, and more should not be said about its particular nature, though it is interesting that source author Duncan can be said to have anticipated part of the premise of GET OUT four decades in advance.
From a moment during Kit’s introduction to Blackwood where a stern-looking woman rolls in a cart and declares, “Medicine” to a later scene in which Kit pounds the piano keys till they literally smoke, DOWN A DARK HALL is rife with amusingly ripe moments and eerie touches, even as Cortés keeps tonal control of the film as a whole and refrains from going completely over the top till the final act. Shot almost entirely on expressively detailed sets by production designer Victor Molero, DOWN A DARK HALL is one lush-looking and -sounding production, with painterly cinematography by THE WITCH’s Jarin Blaschke and a grand score by Victor Reyes. (Nacho Cerdà, of the notorious short AFTERMATH and the 2006 feature THE ABANDONED, was the 2nd-unit director!)
Robb, in her first terror trip since playing the mysterious bayou child in THE REAPING, engages the proper sympathy for the difficult Kit, and plays well off the committed Thurman and Moroles, who gives her all to the especially antagonistic Veronica. Her character is the type that’s often disposed of early in movies like this, but here she winds up in a prominent role—one of the little upsettings of expectations that keeps you wanting to go further down this dark, atmospheric HALL.