Down a Dark Hall (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
Rodrigo Cortés’ “Down a Dark Hall,” based on the novel by Lois Duncan, is stranded between looking like a dark fantasy with a story that of a supernatural horror, creating a strange but only superficially interesting hybrid, an experiment gone wrong, probably never to be replicated again. On this basis, perhaps it is worth seeing, but those who yearn substance in storytelling, not simply a handful of unusual choices that work only occasionally, are certain to be disappointed in this mildly entertaining offering.
The story unfolds in a massive and isolated boarding school led by the mysterious Madame Duret (Uma Thurman, chewing scenery with a thick European accent). She has personally chosen Kit (AnnaSophia Robb) and four other girls (Isabelle Fuhrman, Victoria Moroles, Taylor Russell, Rosie Day) with a penchant for getting into serious trouble, from behavioral problems to downright criminal acts like arson, to attend the institution and be trained to reroute their paths toward a more fruitful future. It has been said those who have attended the school have gone on to lead financially successful lives. Or so it seems. It is apparent that the authorities in the establishment have ulterior motives; the poorly lit hallways, bizarre whispers, and ghostly beings appearing in the corner of one’s room being surefire signs that something is terribly wrong.
While the picture offers curious techniques—like placing the camera from the perspective of a group of apparitions as they watch the girls perform late-night perusals of old files—choices like these fail to elevate a deadly dull, clichéd dialogue. Although Robb is expressive and certainly capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions, words that come out of her mouth are not convincing. No, the performer is not at fault. Imagine anybody else in her place and realize that the problem persists. The weakness is the script itself—the words are forced, robotic, like a lousy first draft rather than a polished product. Its lack of an ear for dialogue drags down the material considerably because exchanges between characters matter in this story. Without them, it is merely a parade of creepy occurrences done better in other films.
Furthermore, we are asked to care about the troubled girls and yet not one of them is developed. Some of them are not even given more than ten lines. Even the protagonist at times is reduced to having nightmares or experiencing hallucinations in order to simplify her state of mind. The others, on the other hand, are shown merely as tools, seemingly possessed by overwhelming inspiration to create mere days after their arrival. Each person excels in a subject—such as art, mathematics, literature—but we rarely see them interact with one another in meaningful ways. What makes one girl connect with literature more than music, for example? Also, by failing to detail at least some aspects of their lives—like what they had done specifically to deserve being sent to Blackwood Boarding School or what they miss back home—when a few of them face gruesome deaths eventually, we feel close to nothing. It feels like a waste of space having them on screen.
Its special and visual effects are hit-or-miss. When they are subtle, like a figure disappearing suddenly at a hint of a candlelight, the images are most effective. It feels like the girls are truly trapped in a haunted school, no help for miles away. But when the effects are ostentatious—like a cloud of black birds smashing through windows or fire engulfing curtains and marble walls alike—it all looks so fake, so unconvincing that I caught myself wishing that the movie were over just so I would stop feeling embarrassed for it.