'Down a Dark Hall': Film Review

Stylishly spooky.
8/17/2018

Uma Thurman plays a mysterious headmistress in Rodrigo Cortes' supernatural thriller based on Lois Duncan's gothic YA novel.

Down a Dark Hall is set in the present day, but it has the feel of a gothic thriller from the 19th century. Set in the sort of forbidding, remote boarding school for which parents should be arrested for sending their children, the stylish supernatural tale is stronger on atmosphere than real scares. But its elegant subtlety feels refreshing in this era of over-the-top horror films.

Uma Thurman, sporting the sort of indeterminate accent that instantly marks her character as villainous, plays the school's deliciously named headmistress, Madame Duret. Skulking about the underlit environs in a variety of chic outfits designed by Zac Posen, the actress is clearly relishing the opportunity to play her Cruella de Vil-like figure.

Adapted from the 1974 novel by the late YA stalwart Lois Duncan (I Know What You Did Last Summer), the film revolves around troubled teenager Kit (AnnaSophia Robb, Soul Surfer and The Carrie Diaries), whose mother reluctantly sends her to Blackwood Academy after Kit displays an alarming tendency toward arson. Despite its massive size, the academy has a remarkable teacher/student ratio, since there are only four other girls enrolled there besides Kit. Its curriculum, however, is rather limited, consisting of only four subjects: art, literature, mathematics and music, each taught by a different instructor. Madame Duret herself teaches the first subject, while her hunky son Jules (Noah Silver) handles the last.

Kit and her fellow students Veronica (Victoria Moroles), Sierra (Rosie Day) Ashley (Taylor Russell) and Izzy (Isabelle Fuhrman) quickly figure out that there are some strange aspects to their new school. Each of them quickly demonstrates a heretofore unrealized aptitude for a particular subject, with Kit suddenly becoming a talented piano player. Not surprisingly, things also start to go bump in the night, particularly in the mansion's shadowy hall which the students have been strictly forbidden to explore.

The film starts slowly and never really picks up much narrative momentum from there. But director Rodrigo Cortes, who demonstrated his talent with the Ryan Reynolds thriller Buried, infuses the proceedings with sufficient spookiness to sustain suspense. The screenplay by Mike Goldbach and Chris Sparling features a welcome amount of understated humor in its dialogue and characterizations, with the young women displaying distinctive personalities that make them more than mere ciphers.

The technical elements are first rate, from the gloomy (sometimes too gloomy) cinematography of Jarin Blaschke (The Witch) to the music score by Victor Reyes that recalls classic Hammer horror films of the '60s and 70s. Thurman is a hoot as the imposing headmistress who hissingly refers to her charges as "miscreants" when riled; Robb makes the rebellious Kit surprisingly endearing; and Moroles nearly steals the film as the no-holds-barred Veronica.

Produced by Stephenie Meyer of Twilight fame, Down a Dark Hall should easily appeal to that franchise's teenage girl demographic.

Production companies: Fickle Fish Films, Nostromo Pictures, Temple Hill Entertainment
Distributors: Summit Entertainment, Lionsgate
Cast: AnnaSophia Robb, Uma Thurman, isabelle Fuhrman, Victoria Moroles, Noah Silver, Taylor Russell, Rosie Day, Rebecca Front, Jodhi May, Pip Torrens
Director-editor: Rodrigo Cortes
Screenwriters: Mike Goldbach, Chris Sparling
Producers: Stephenie Meyer, Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Meghan Hibbett, Adrian Guerra
Executive producers: Isaac Klausner, Nira Valls
Director of photography: Jarin Blaschke
Production designer: Victor Molero
Composer: Victor Reyes
Costume designer: Patricia Monne
Casting: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood

Rated PG-13, 96 minutes