Directed by Rodrigo Cortes. Starring AnnaSophia Robb, Uma Thurman, Isabelle Fuhrman. Horror, US 2018, 96mins, Cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD and EST on 22nd October by Lionsgate
Director Rodrigo Cortes first became known to the wider western audience via his effective 2010 film BURIED, which played on many peoples primal fear and made effective us of its extremely limited setting. For DOWN A DARK HALL, his adaptation of Lois Duncan’s novel of the same name, he has a much broader canvas to work with yet for the most part proves himself to be a skilled craftsmen when it comes to creating a disturbing horror atmosphere.
The film opens with two dream sequences that are seemingly unrelated, before we meet Kit Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb), a troubled teenager whose misadventures leave her mum and stepdad at their wits end. An option that is presented to them comes in the form of a place at Blackwood, a mysterious boarding school run by the equally mysterious Madame Duret (Uma Thurman). Upon arrival Kit learns that she is one of only five pupils who it appears have been personally selected by Duret who informs each of the girls that they are extraordinary. Quite why or how is not initially explained but as the teaching begins, it soon becomes clear that all is far from normal as the girls witness ghostly apparitions, strange dreams and things that go bump in the night.
It’s a familiar set-up of teenage horror literature – Twilight author Stephenie Meyer is a producer on the film – but Cortes revels in the atmosphere. Anchored by engaging performances from the cast, he keeps the attention through smart camera work, often lingering on characters facial reactions for an extended period to drag out the tension. At other times, he gives the audience a glimpse of ‘the other side’ that just escapes the attention of those in the frame. Jump scares are used sparingly, which only makes them more effective when they do occur. When the story goes outside, the atmospheric mood remains as we’re smartly drawn into the story through hints at what is happening with Kit serving as our guide into the surreal secrets within.
As those secrets start to become unveiled, the story does start to get away somewhat and although a key expositional speech from the chilling Thurman brings it round, the film as a result loses some of its edge.
The final half an hour does then descend into anarchy within the school and sadly the sinister atmosphere evaporates, although the earlier investment in the characters does mean that you’re at least involved enough to care what happens come the oddly emotional final reel.