Down a Dark Hall

The mansion is old. Green ivy crawls along the exterior, alongside moss and age. It's a Gothic-looking structure, fit to be in a novel by Emily Brontë. It speaks of generations upon generations of secrets and stories. More than one ghost probably haunts its dark corridors and creaky doorways. Into this setting is thrust a small group of troublesome girls. These modern day women create an incredibly jarring, yet charming, anachronistic foil to the very classic old mansion and narrative.  Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan was originally released in 1974 and this particular version feels right at home with her original novel. 

Facts Are Facts

Writers: Michael Goldbach and Chris Sparling
Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Gayly: stylish and atmospheric
Dreadful: very YA and oftentimes silly
Pairs With: The Orphanage
Availability: Limited Theatrical and VOD

Kit Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb) is a difficult young woman, who has continually gotten herself into trouble. The latest seems to be an arson kick. She is sent to Blackwood Boarding School when her attitude and vaguely criminal in a YA story way gets too much for her mom to handle. You know she's punk AF, by the way, because she's sporting a lip ring, smokey eyes and a pink streak in her hair. Yes, it's that type of story. At Blackwood, she meets the headmistress, played with scene-chewing aplomb by Uma Thurman, the staff and four other young women who also have been getting into trouble.

These five young women are to learn from a variety of teachers, including a mathematician, an artist, an English professor and the cutest and youngest music teacher, who gets awfully close to our dear Kit. None of these young women seem to have any penchant for the arts, and yet as the days go by they seem to quickly fall into a groove. Sierra (Rosie Day) begins to furiously paint with surprising artistry. Ashley (Taylor Russell) begins to compose Romantic poetry and prose to stun the greats. Izzy (Isabelle Fuhrman) becomes a little math genius. And Kit, who cozies up to our handsome music teacher Jules (Noah Silver), is seemingly possessed by some musical maestro. The bully Veronica seems to be the only person who doesn't seem to be taking in the newfound artistry.

He can teach me any day.

Unfortunately, these new gifts come with a cost. Their passion turns into obsession and the women find themselves shrugging off earthly requirements, such as eating and drinking. Time seems to be slipping away from Kit, as she finds herself in odd places, not knowing quite what's happened in the interim. As their talents increase, so to does a malevolent sense of creeping doom, until Kit is faced with the realism that they may just be pawns in some larger game.

Down a Dark Hall is an okay film. Director Rodrigo Cortés (Buried) brings a stylish (yet somehow classical) feel to the proceedings. He smartly uses cinematographer Jarin Blaschke's skill to create a very lush yet foreboding picture. Blaschke brought similar talents to bear in The Witch and his style is one of the huge selling points to Down a Dark Hall. Likewise, the score by Víctor Reyes feels inspired by other great Spanish directors' horror films, like The Orphanage and Pan's Labyrinth. It's at once like a fairy tale and a ghost story, which fits the themes of the film perfectly. Finally, the acting is strong throughout, even though Uma's non-distinct European accent can be kind of distracting.

Unfortunately, sometimes the movie flits too much into ridiculousness. Some of the events in the second act (and even in the third) move away from the haunted house type atmosphere and truly show the young adult heart at its center. One particular moment that comes to mind is a masquerade ball that seems to manifest around Kit as she plays the piano. A second moment is a young adult take on a demonic possession that is a bit too silly to be believed. These moments threaten to derail what was, up until that moment, a creepy and excellently wrought story.

Those looking for scares should probably look elsewhere. As a straight up horror film, it’s very young adult oriented and the horror is wimpy. Most of the film eschews true horror for more of an atomospheric ghost story. Creaky doors. Voices. Things passing behind characters or in front of the camera, that type of thing. That said, it has one incredibly well-executed jump scare that Cortés and Blaschke perfectly stage. It's a virtuous mix of sound-editing and cinematography that actually got me to jump. Other than that, though, it's definitely horror-lite and I've seen much scarier PG-13 horror films in my time.

Overall, I had a surprisingly fun time with most of Down a Dark Hall. A lot of love and care went into the proceedings and even though the advertisements proudly proclaim "From the Producers of the Twilight Saga," I'm happy to report that this is more Team The Others than it is Team Edward.

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