As much as it might want to be, Down a Dark Hall is not your ordinary teens-in-peril horror movie. There’s no deranged murderer stalking a bunch of girls around campus. And don’t let the fact that this was produced by Twilight’s Stephanie Meyer put you off either, although the heroine of this adaptation of the late Lois Duncan’s 1974 novel (published the year after I Know What You Did Last Summer) does share something of a premise with Bella Swan.
Some years after her father’s death, troubled Kit Gordy attempts to burn down her high school, subsequently finding herself involuntarily relocated to the isolated Blackwood Boarding School. Run by Madame Duret, the institution limits itself to a very select group of unsettled students – just the five, in fact – each of whom has encountered problems dealing with an ordinary life but in whom Duret and her staff have spotted a ‘gift’ that they undertake to draw out.
Anyone expecting the teaching staff to turn out to be vampires by this point will be sorely disappointed. The turn the story takes instead proves to be a lot more interesting – but (on screen at least) a lot less well-developed.
Madame Duret and staff, including Jodhi May and Pip Torrens, plus Rebecca Front as Duret’s ‘handy-woman’, are keen to promote ‘the four pillars of learning’: arithmetic, art, literature and music – and that’s the direction the supernatural element of Down a Dark Hall takes us. Kit, under the instruction of Madame Duret’s son Jules, turns out to be something of a piano virtuoso, despite never having exhibited much of a talent for it before – while the other girls are discovering similar proclivities for maths, poetry and painting. Meanwhile there’s an old wing at Blackwood the girls have been forbidden to enter because it ‘isn’t perfectly safe’...
It’s all very atmospherically shot (pity there’s no Blu-ray this side of the Atlantic) by Rodrigo Cortés, although despite some well-realised musical sequences the Spanish director does rather favour cleansing fire over intellectual resolution during the rather predictable last half-hour. The film’s other failing is its lack of any real character development; we dovetail straight from introduction to possession and get little real flavour for the establishment or the girls’ relationships.
That said, AnnaSophia Robb (Tim Burton’s Violet Beauregarde) is excellent as Kit, and both the English members of staff and the other students acquit themselves well. The two Durets are another matter; you’d never guess Noah Silver was raised in France from his dubious accent, and his performance isn’t a whole lot better, while the same goes double for Uma Thurman as Jules’ mother. Thurman exhibits an eccentric authority that has to be seen to be disbelieved.
DOWN A DARK HALL / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: RODRIGO CORTÉS / SCREENPLAY: MICHAEL GOLDBACH, CHRIS SPARLING / STARRING: ANNASOPHIA ROBB, UMA THURMAN, VICTORIA MOROLES, ISABELLE FUHRMAN, TAYLOR RUSSELL, ROSIE DAY, NOAH SILVER, REBECCA FRONT, PIP TORRENS, JODHI MAY / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 22ND