Down a Dark Hall
Director: Rodrigo Cortés / Screenplay: Michael Goldbach & Chris Sparling (from novel by Lois Duncan) / Editing: Rodrigo Cortés / DP: Jarin Blaschke / Music: Victor Reyes
Cast: AnnaSophia Robb / Uma Thurman / Isabelle Fuhrman / Victoria Moroles / Noah Silver / Taylor Russell / Rosie Day / Rebecca Front / Jodhi May / Pip Torrens / Jim Sturgeon
My First Bodysnatchers Movie…
As frequent visitors to this blog might’ve gathered, I don’t review current releases, but Lionsgate were good enough to send out a review copy of Down a Dark Hall, so…
While I’m in a confessional mood, I ought to say that I’m about as far removed from ‘Dark Hall’s intended ‘YA’ audience as it’s possible to be, so I’m coming to the film with an open mind and no baggage.
I want it to be Citizen Kane…
It’s not, of course, but I’ll give anything the benefit of the doubt. Spanish Director Rodrigo Cortés first came to my attention, with his amazing debut feature Buried (2010); a cleverly-assembled, economical psychological drama, in which Ryan Reynolds – a civilian contractor in post-war Iraq – finds himself ‘buried alive’ in a coffin, armed only with a cellphone… Such a great, novel idea. Since then, Cortés has delivered an insipid supernatural-thriller-thing in the form of Red Lights (2012) and a couple of shorts, so Dark Hall marks his third feature.
Based on a venerated novel by Lois Duncan (author of I Know What You Did Last Summer), produced by that doyen of YA cinema Stephenie Meyer (creator of the Twilight series) and adapted for the screen by Michael Goldbach & Chris Sparling (himself, the writer of Buried), the story is a classic ‘modern Gothic’ supernatural chiller for a Young Adult audience.
Its premise is about as humdrum as it gets: gather a small group of ‘troubled’ teenage girls (though none are so troubled as to have learnt to swear, lest they incur the wrath of the Censors) and pack them off to an isolated Victorian mansion, that looks designed by the same architect as the Overlook Hotel… ‘Blackwood House’ is now run as a ‘special school’ with the purpose of honing their ‘unique gifts’. Throw-in Uma Thurman as a headmistress, who seems to be channelling Miss Jean Brodie in her prime, via Jacqueline Bisset at her sleekest and you can almost fill in the blanks yourself.
Thurman’s Madame Duret isn’t working alone, as she’s ably assisted by her son, Jules (Noah Silver, c/w manicured stubble & knee-wobbling cheekbones), Miss Sinclair & Professor Farley (underwritten roles for Jodhi May & Pip Torrens respectively). Bringing up the rear, with an aggressive diffidence, is the housekeeper Mrs Olonsky (Rebecca Front); a woman who suffers no fools. The brisk script wastes little time in explaining the set-up: Blackwood’s four teachers offer just four subjects: Music, Literature, Art & Mathematics. The five girl pupils, must surrender their cellphones on arrival and are allowed just one call home per-term (I can imagine that notion alone, will probably scare the living bejesus out of its audience, more than anything else the film has to offer).
Of the girls, the script focusses on just one lead: Kit, played by AnnaSophia Robb; a young actress I’ve seen once before, in the surprisingly powerful Bridge to Terabithia (2007). Kit exhibits a latent ‘Sixth Sense’ enabling her to ‘see the dead’ – namely, her late father; unsurprisingly, this trait is shared by all five. For what Mme Duret has built, in her Gothic hideaway, is an environment in which vulnerable, teenage girls can ‘channel the dead’. Not just any Tom, Dick or Harry mind, but certified geniuses who, err, ‘checked-out’ before they could complete their masterpieces… See where this is going?
Well, you’re not wrong, for like a precisely-tooled automaton, it unspools to a climactic snatch of earnest dialogue from Thurman, who comes tantalisingly close to snatching The Ultimate Prize, before a fiery conclusion. That by the way, was deemed inevitable, from the moment we see a demonically-possessed Veronica (Victoria Moroles) chained by the neck, within a crescent of flickering candles in close-proximity to some flammable drapes…
‘Dark Hall, then, is entry-level horror. It’s a bloodless affair using a couple of mild jump-scares & wild zooms into panelled doors accompanied by bassy grumbles from the other side for its thrills; oh, and a motley dancing sequence that’s less a ‘Dance of the Dead’ and more like a desaturated version of the masquerade ball in Labyrinth (1986).
Instead, it relies on being seen by an unschooled audience unused to film-making of this kind and who’ve neither seen (nor heard of) The Woman in Black (2012). Yet, for all that, despite being solidly put-together by Cortés, ‘Dark Hall fails to explore the potential in its premise. For a start, it lacks any dialogue with ‘The Visitors’, thus denying itself a mechanism that might’ve explained their original ‘terminations’. Spouting woolly guff about ‘The Muse’ is selling things short, even if the sentiment is delivered with emphatic conviction by Thurman (in a brilliant French accent, I should add).
There’s also an element of allegory here, I think, about the notion of women’s bodies being exploited by others – by ‘authority’ – that’s almost prescient, yet this, too, is left unexplored. As is the inter-relationships of the girls, once their initial frostiness melts; aside from a brief glimpse into Kit’s background, we knew nothing about them. It’s as though the screenwriters have made good on Duret’s final, damning verdict that they’re nothing more than empty vessels… Either that, or the ninety-minute running time (proscribed for movies of this type) simply didn’t allow anything deeper.
I suppose the same might be said of ‘Dark Hall itself; a film that deserves to take its rightful place as an average film in all respects. While we’re on the subject of vessels, I suppose Cortés’ film holds itself together, but it’s devoid of any flair, having been assembled to a safe, reliable formula. Movies like this get made every year, to attract the next generation of horror fans, in the way b-movie Westerns & Noir pictures once packed-out the fleapits. They keep aflame a genre’s pilot light, until something brighter comes along.
In the end, it’s as forgettable as the trance-states from which these girls emerge; the only difference is, that in the movie, there’s nothing to show for it…
You didn’t learn anything! You can’t play the instrument at all. You girls are their instruments!