My notes on Down a Dark Hall, out on UK DVD October 22.
This teen-themed spook mystery is based on a book by – and dedicated to – Lois Duncan (Summer of Fear, I Know What You Did Last Summer), who pioneered the field of young adult horror, spinning yarns of pretty girls in old dark houses and everyday cruelties that take on a gothic tone. Directed by Rodrigo Cortes (Buried, Red Lights) and scripted by Michael Goldbach (Daydream Nation) and Chris Sparling (Mercy, ATM, The Atticus Institute), it’s a Spanish-American co-production with a predominantly British supporting cast – UK viewers will find Rebecca Front’s turn as a Rosa Klebb-style thug housekeeper a change of pace for the comedienne – and manages to mix the eerie, subtly creepy qualities of recent Spanish horror films, with their emphasis on whispery sound design and sumptuous old dark houses, with the gritty teen soap feel of US horror (it’s the second scary movie I’ve seen this year set in a school for problem kids, after Boarding School).
With an icily diva-like star turn from Uma Thurman as an elegantly sinister, witchy headmistress and intricate plotting, it offers a solid, if eventually guessable mystery and works up to a fine old-fashioned melodrama finish out of Roger Corman’s Poe movies as the living and the dead settle their issues in a massive conflagration while decadent art direction crumples in the flames. Kit Cordy (AnnaSophia Robb, well into her second decade as a convincing teen lead), who has had issues ever since she claimed to see her dead father wandering around, is turned over to Madame Duret (Thurman), mistress of Blackwood Academy, which is housed in a vast, partially-derelict estate with dodgy wiring (candles and torches are issued to all pupils) and takes on only five girls for intensive straightening-out sessions that also wake hidden talents for music, maths, art or literature.
Also in school are Veronica (Victoria Moroles), an imposing bully with character depths, Izzy (Isabelle Fuhrman, the creepy kid from Orphan), who starts scrawling theorems everywhere, Ashley (Taylor Russell), who does herself an injury scribbling wild (and obscene) poetry, and Sierra (Rosie Day, from The Seasoning House), who starts painting in the style of a short-lived 19th century master (and signing his initials). Kit starts becoming a piano virtuosa under the tutelage of the Madame’s dreamy son (Noah Silver), but also sees more and more ghosts in the corners of rooms or down those dark halls … prompting a neat bonding session as she shyly confesses her secret only to find that all the other girls have similar psychic troubles. Thereafter, it gets plottier – with some of Duncan’s details gabbled through – but boils down to a satisfying clash between stubborn teen and venomously chic teacher which makes you realise why generations of girls love Duncan’s books. Also on the staff, in understated sinister roles, are familiar faces Jodhi May and Pip Torrens.
What was also interesting was that Madame was not only willing to sacrifice for art, but willing to sacrifice countless others for art, and yet, the art that is recovered, in the end, is still lost. And yet, Kat still finds redemption. Maybe not a great movie, yet still proof you can make a solid gothic-style tale in this day and age.