The Gothic haunted-house thriller “Down a Dark Hall” is loaded with atmospheric chills, in service to a story that goes from labored tedium to full-tilt crazy — but not enough of the latter to make up for the former.
Kit Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb) is facing her latest suspension from school for bad behavior, but this trip to the principal’s office has a new feature: The presence of Dr. Heather Sinclair (Jodhi May), who teaches literature at an exclusive girl’s academy, the Blackwood Boarding School. Sinclair says Kit, for all of her discipline problems, is exactly the kind of girl who would do well at Blackwood. Kit’s mom (Kirsty Mitchell), out of options, agrees.
When Kit lands at Blackwood, she meets four other young women in a similar predicament: Izzy (Isabelle Fuhrman), Ashley (Taylor Russell), Sierra (Rosie Day) and the toughest of the bunch, Veronica (Victoria Moroles). They are given an odd welcome from the headmistress, Madame Duret (Uma Thurman), who promises a rigorous curriculum in art, music, math and literature.
Soon, each of the girls — except Veronica — finds themselves excelling at one of those four disciplines. Kit, who hasn’t played piano since age 9, discovers her talent returning and then some, as she composes ferocious sonatas on the spot. But there’s something strange, almost sinister about how these new talents are manifesting themselves. The girls are also seeing what appear to be ghosts coming out of the shadows.
Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés, who directed the Ryan Reynolds one-man thriller “Buried,” summons up all the visual touches a haunted-house thriller should provide. From the creaky floors to the burning candles, all the elements are there for a spooky Halloween-level experience.
The script, adapted from Lois Duncan’s novel by Mike Goldbach and Chris Sparling, can’t keep the proportions of explainable weirdness and mystifying oddities in balance. The result is a thriller that takes too long to build up to its climax, which turns out to be pretty psychotic — especially with Thurman, fake French accent and all, attacking it with full force. But Thurman’s efforts come a bit late to rescue “Down a Dark Hall” from its early doldrums.
‘Down a Dark Hall’
Opens Friday, August 17, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, terror and violence, some language including a sexual reference, and smoking. Running time: 96 minutes.