It isn’t terrible, but Down a Dark Hall occupies a weird space that is true to its young-adult roots but much too limp for seasoned genre fans.
As a father of two girls, I know they’re prone to acting up. But there are probably better places to send them than the curious, creepy private school which five maladjusted teens are bundled off to in Down a Dark Hall, the belated adaptation of the 1974 young-adult novel of the same name by Lois Duncan.
The story’s roots in tweener fiction are evident right from the off, as director Rodrigo Cortés strikes an awkward balance between juvenile fantasia and grown-up scares that never stops feeling unintentionally off-kilter. We meet Kit (AnnaSophia Robb), a tearaway since the death of her father, who is given an out-of-nowhere offer to attend the mysterious Blackwood Boarding School, a sprawling, wooded institution in the middle of nowhere. As she’s on her last warning before expulsion from public school, her stressed-out mother (Kirsty Mitchell) and stepfather (Jim Sturgeon) eagerly accept, and off she pops.
Blackwood is presided over by Madame Duret, played by an imperious Uma Therman doing a cloying European accent ripped straight out of The Aristocats. Her loyal helper, Miss Olonsky (Rebecca Front), is Oddjob and Jaws rolled into one, and teaching staff in employ include the Madame’s handsome son, Jules (Noah Silver), an English professor, Miss Sinclair (Jodhi May), and the mathematician Professor Farley (Pip Torrens). There’s no wonder Kit and the four other problem children don’t take well to the (convincing) Gothic atmosphere.
But they do take well to the lessons – suspiciously well, you could say. Kit begins composing and playing masterful piano concertos; Sierra (Rosie Day) speed-paints jaw-dropping landscapes; Ashley (Taylor Russell) scribbles faultless Romantic prose; and Izzy (Isabelle Fuhrman) inches close to the solutions of impossible math problems. I’d like to say that the teaching methods at Blackwood are simply that good, but there wouldn’t be much of a film here if that were true. As it stands, Down a Dark Hall begins to introduce supernatural elements that become gradually more explicit and malevolent as things progress.
A lot of this manifests in very silly ways, such as when the girls start to frantically channel their newfound gifts in a manner that doesn’t so much suggest possession as the film playing on fast-forward. And there are the usual ghoulish figures slinking along the hallways and in the background of shots that Down a Dark Hall seems a bit hesitant to commit to, presumably to maintain the tone of teen sleuthing.
Luckily the five girls at the film’s core are likeable and well-cast, and the adults, especially Thurman, do a fine job with lesser parts. Down a Dark Hall is a decent, sometimes good modern Gothic thriller, handled capably and with some style. It just feels trapped between tones, as if it doesn’t know entirely what it wants to be or who it wants to be for. I suspect it isn’t me. But with a very limited theatrical run alongside a VOD release, there’s every chance that the film won’t discover its audience at all.