The real mystery of “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” is why it exists in the first place: A pilot the Disney Channel turned down? A direct-to-video cheapie? A slapdash attempt to extend the film rights of a soon-to-expire intellectual property agreement? The options abound.
This new adaptation of the durable detective series is being released, barely, by Warner Bros. — which, as it happens, also released the last movie adaptation, 2007’s “Nancy Drew,” with Emma Roberts. Warner Bros. also released the first efforts to put Carolyn Keene’s girl detective on the screen, a quartet of films in 1938 and 1939 starring Bonita Granville. (Universal Television added Nancy, played by Pamela Sue Martin, to its “Hardy Boys Mysteries” in the late ‘70s. And in 2002, a “Nancy Drew” TV movie, with Maggie Lawson playing Nancy in college, aired on ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney.”)
For a franchise that has been so prolific and so popular over the decades, one might expect more screen adaptations. This new version points to a possible reason why: The stories are rather thin.
This version starts with some backstory, of 16-year-old Nancy (Sophia Lillis) and her father, attorney Carson Drew (Sam Trammell, formerly of “True Blood”), just relocated to Chicago to the small town of River Heights. Moving puts the Drews near Carson’s sister Hannah (Andrea Anders) and away from memories of Nancy’s recently deceased mom. But Nancy is bored with small-town life, and needs some excitement.
At first, Nancy creates that excitement through vigilantism. She teams with pals George Fayne (Zoe Renee) and Bess Marvin (Mackenzie Graham) to engineer revenge against the rich jock Derek (Evan Castelloe), who cyberbullies shy Bess. That stunt lands her doing community service for Sheriff Marchbanks (Jay DeVon Johnson), which is how Nancy overhears elderly Flora (the great Linda Lavin) complaining about strange supernatural doings in her big old house.
Nancy enlists George and Bess to help investigate Flora’s house. Also along for the ride, reluctantly, is Flora’s great-niece, Helen Corning (Laura Wiggins), a spoiled rich classmate who is also Derek’s girlfriend. Nancy and Helen dislike each other intensely, but agree to put that aside to help Flora unravel the mystery behind her seemingly haunted house.
Screenwriters Nina Fiore and John Herrera (who work together as executive story editors on “The Handmaid’s Tale”) have fun laying out the detective tropes to a pre-teen generation that may not know them already. Even so, the story feels padded, and director Katt Shea, an alumna of Roger Corman’s B-movie stable and director of the 1992 Drew Barrymore sexploitation movie “Poison Ivy,” can barely find enough action to get the movie over the 90-minute mark.
The saving grace of “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” is Lillis as Nancy. Lillis — who shot to fame as Beverly, the lone girl in the Losers Club in Stephen King’s “It” — was 16 herself when she shot this movie, and she conveys Nancy’s intelligence and spitfire attitude quite well. Too bad Shea couldn’t build a sturdier movie around her.
‘Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase’
Opens Friday, March 15, in select markets, including AMC West Jordan 12 (West Jordan) and AMC Layton Hills 9 (Layton). Rated PG for peril, suggestive material, thematic elements and language. Running time: 89 minutes.
(Correction: In an earlier version of this review, I mistakenly said George, Nancy’s friend and sidekick, was a boy in the books. I conflated George — short for Georgia — with Ned Nickerson, Nancy’s sometimes-boyfriend.)