“Stephanie” begins as a supernatural mystery, flirts with “Quiet Ones” thrills and fizzles into the sentimental, enervated horror that is exactly what we expected — only more boring — in those opening scenes.
The fact that it barely saw theatrical release could drive a stake in the heart of the directing ambitions of Oscar winning screenwriter (“A Beautiful Mind”), producer and aspiring director Akiva Goldsman (“Winter’s Tale”). The fact that it barely deserved release just shows the studio was paying attention.
We meet Stephanie as a little girl (Shree Crooks) alone, — latchkey or abandoned, she’s all by herself in a big suburban two-story. She chatters to her constant companion, Frances, a stuffed turtle — redecorates at will, with crayons, feeds her pet bunny tomato sauce, practices her profanity because there’s nobody around to correct it — and copes.
Is anybody coming for her? We’re getting a child’s eye view of terror and trauma, coping by denial, by getting used to whatever is “out in trees” that is sure to “get” her.
Life is a cascading parade of accidents waiting to happen, drawing its suspense from “What will this little dickens get into next?” Climbing on shelves, dropping jars on the floor, jamming up a plugged-in blender which she, being 7 or so, attempts to free by sticking her hand in the thing.
And there are growls from outside and the walls ripple with life.
“Go’way, please go away!”
Something about this child isn’t right, and it’s not just that she’s the only kid her age on Planet Earth watching and re-watching “The Tale of Despereaux” on TV. Something happened “out there,” which we see glimpsed on other TV channels. There’s still power and cable, but words like “Quarantine” flash on the screen.
And there’s something upstairs that only deepens the mystery, a corpse. In the night, when she’s not hiding from whatever is outside by crawling into the tub or under the bed, she talks to the dead body.
Then, miracle of miracles, Mom and Dad (Anna Torv and grizzled Frank Grillo) return. She’s saved, back in their loving arms but still oddly detached as she halfhearted readjusts to life with adult supervision.
“You used to say ‘There’s no such thing as monsters,” she complains to Mom.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
They do that a lot — apologize.
Goldsman does his best to disguise what’s happening and what’s coming, looking for suspense in the dark of night, seeking tension in a heaping helping of extreme closeups, relying on the title character to engender sympathy, for us to fear for her, and for the audience to have forgotten the famous “Twilight Zone” episode that this, like so many other horror tales, is cribbed from.
Our Miss Crooks may look angelic, but something about her suggests a creepy confidence about the dangerous world she inhabits. That undercuts any suspense we’d feel or fear we have for her future.
Well, that and the film’s title.
Grillo and Torv give fair value, playing parents ruled by responsibility and loyalty, but also fear and dread. Can they cope with whatever is after them or whatever the untroubled Stephanie has become in their absence?
So much here depends on twists that are no twists at all that Goldsman is hamstrung by a screenplay even he should have seen was unfilmmable, or needed doctoring.
Only stunning luck in casting the kid might have saved him, and finding the next Jodie Foster or Haley Joel Osment only happens once a generation. Casting a kid who can manage shades of creepy, even in her sweetest moments, doesn’t disguise anything.
“Stephanie” simply toddles along, intriguing for 20 minutes, exciting for three or four, and dull the remaining 60 minutes of its tedious, been-there/saw-that-coming running time.
Rating: R for some horror violence
Cast: Frank Grillo, Shree Crooks, Anna Torv
Running time: 1:26