The movie establishes itself quickly.
Angsty female lead. Gothic mansion. The classic “that area is out of bounds” line. 20 minutes in, you’ll find that Down A Dark Hall has a familiar tone to it. The way it introduces the characters, their relationships, some snappy cliches, and a painfully coerced romantic storyline – you have seen it all before – in Twilight.
Although based on Louis Duncan’s young adult novel, and with so many other parties at the helm, the film adaptation has got Stephenie Meyer’s treatment all over it. And not always in a good way. This is not to say the film has no redeeming qualities; it does. Director Rodrigo Cortés draws out some great performances despite the limp script, and has delivered stylish shots with DOP Jarin Blaschke.
Down A Dark Hall sends five unwilling young girls to the forbiddingly beautiful Blackwood Academy. Each of them has a track record of delinquency, ranging from assault to arson, but receives a chance to redeem themselves at the boarding school. Their rehabilitator, and self-proclaimed savior, is a very severe Madame Duret (Uma Thurman).
Our lead is Kit (AnnaSophia Robb). She’s snarky, until she meets Veronica (Victoria Moroles) who’s even snappier. There’s the awkward Ashley (Taylor Russell), raspy Izzy (Isabelle Fuhrman) and spaced-out semi-posh Sierra (Rosie Day) with her pet goldfish. The girls, as expected, don’t get along too well, until they find there’s bigger problems than their territorial cat fight.
They are introduced to their faculty, which of course includes our token dreamy number Jules Duret (Noah Silver), also Madame Duret’s son. The four teachers educate the girls on the ‘4 pillars’ – literature, art, arithmetic and music. It is Madame Duret’s prescription to greatness, and unfortunately for the girls, the same path to darkness.
With the Meyer touch, Down A Dark Hall turns from bitter social commentary and philosophical ponderings, into a milder beast that’s lost significant bite. We can all groan when the obvious romantic entanglement comes between Kit and Jules, but it won’t matter, it’s going to clumsily string the story along.
I can almost see Cortés tugging away at parts of the film, wresting control from the real film matriarch – producer Meyer. Indeed, some scenes are genuinely creepy and Thurman lends enough gravity to make us question her agenda, but the temporal treatment of the girls and commitment to the genre leaves us not particularly invested in them.
Even when the answers are revealed in brimstone and dramatic proclamations, it throws up more questions. For Down A Dark Hall, it’s the motivations that remain ghostly.
A committed performance with effective, atmospheric cinematography falls short in tangible scares and genuine story thrust.