You see enough bad horror movies in a row, you start losing faith in the genre. Then one comes along that startles, impresses and even touches you, and you forget all the many ways everything else you’ve seen lately has gone wrong.
“Down a Dark Hall” gets one huge thing right that’s a common failing of most horror — pathos. It makes you care and makes you feel, even though what you’re watching is just a clever mashup of ghost story tropes, a “genre picture” in every sense of the word.
That it works should come as no surprise. Uma Thurman makes a great villain, and AnnaSophia Robb has proven to be one of the best child actresses of her generation.
Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés gave us the harrowing “Buried” and the creepily intriguing “Red Light,” and gives the film a European sensibility.
And what brought them all together? A film about seriously messed-up girls menaced in a seriously chilling girl’s boarding school, a film based on a novel by the Grande Dame of YA Frights, Lois Duncan of “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
Kit (Robb) is a polished liar, also an arsonist and heaven knows what else that’s detailed on her rap sheet. She lost her dad very young and she’s never gotten over it, never forgiven the world.
We meet her as she’s about to be kicked out of school. Her parents are desperate enough to try this school that an elegant, European-accented recruiter Dr. Sinclair (Jodhi May) suggests — Blackwood.
“Girls like me end up on meds,” she hisses to the recruiter. But before she knows it Miss Anger Management Issues is packed off to the boondocks, to stately, forbidding and historic Blackwood Hall.
It’s a lovely setting where painting, writing and music are vital elements of the curriculum.
“At Blackwood, we believe beauty enriches the spirit,” headmistress Madame Duret (Thurman) purrs to Kit while her parents are there. But the moment they’re gone, Kit sees the place is empty, that it has wiring and lighting problems.
And when the rest of the students arrive, it turns out there are only five, including Kit — with a student-teacher ratio that any prep school would envy. The instructors include Madame Duret (painting), Dr. Sinclair (writing) and Madame Duret’s hunky son (Noah Silver) who teaches music.
The “special” girls? Edgy Izzy (Isabelle Fuhrman), eager-to-please Ashley (Taylor Russell) and delicate flower Sierra (Rosie Day) are just a bit off. Bullying Veronica (Victoria Moroles) and perpetually pissed Kit are the ones who look like they truly belong in this baroque “prison.”
But the instruction takes hold, even with that feuding duo. This girl is a “natural” at math, that one a gifted painter, one’s a born poet. And Kit? She never knew she could play the piano like that.
It’s Madame Duret’s “results” that first spook Kit. The manic way Sierra wields a brush, the dead-eyed automaton Izzy turns to when solving a proof, the way Kit herself plays until her fingers bleed.
Then, there are those wraiths she sees in the shadows. And there are a lot of shadows, especially in the “closed off” wing of Blackwood Hall. You remember. “Wiring problems.”
I wasn’t so much conscious of Cortés ratcheting up suspense as absorbed by the milieu, the brittle chemistry and funny/testy banter among the girls and the mystery that Kit is trying to figure out. Robb, ranging from irked to enraged and rebellious to terrified, makes Kit’s journey a fraught one we take with someone we instantly root for.
Moroles gives Veronica her own Threat Level in the midst of all this, all menace and out of f—-s to give attitude.
Thurman, oily accent dripping with menace, is no Disney villain here. She’s real world dangerous, vulpine, callous, keeping supernatural secret threats from her pupils. And for those occasions where she’s not scary enough, there’s the obligatory Russian disciplinarian (Rebecca Front) to grab you by the hair and restore order.
“Down a Dark Hall” never transcends its genre and only rarely manages surprise. But a superb cast, a reliably spooking setting, good effects, decent frights and just a hint of “culture” make it a pleasant break from under-budgeted crap and endless “Annabelle/Insidious” sequels.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, terror and violence, some language including a sexual reference, and smoking
Cast: AnnaSophia Robb, Uma Thurman, Victoria Moroles, Jodhi May, Noah Silver
Credits:Directed by Rodrigo Cortés, script by Michael Goldbach and Chris Sparling, based on a novel by Lois Duncan. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:36