Lois Duncan deserves more respect as an author, at least from people of a certain age who grew up reading her books. To many people, Duncan’s novels, however silly they could sometimes be, were the first tastes of dark, twisted tales of betrayal and terror. Stories like Locked in Time, Killing Mr. Griffin, and I Know What You Did Last Summer (known through its loose adaption into a 1997 slasher film) all captivated young people long before the darker, more adult grips of the likes of Stephen King, among others, took hold. Duncan’s work is not talked about as much in the 21st century since the world of young adult fiction has exploded with the comings of the Harry Potters, the Twilights, and The Hunger Games. Her work is not as epic or as mystical as the more modern iterations of this literary sub-genre, but Duncan’s spirit lives in full force with a new adaption of one of her most celebrated works, Down A Dark Hall, hitting theaters and streaming services Friday, August 17th, 2018.
Katherine “Kit” Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb) is a delinquent teenager who has reached the end of her parents’ patience. In desperation, they send her to the elusive Blackwood Boarding School for Girls, headed by the charismatic French headmistress Madame Duret (Uma Thurman). Along with four other girls, Kit must adjust to her new life in the secluded gothic mansion that is Blackwood. Surprisingly, all of the girls, aside from one, excel in their studies, producing some truly wonderful works of art, music, literature, and arithmetic. While the girls are initially pleased with their progress, they soon begin to discover the dark side effects that come with their new talents and the dark secrets that the house, as well as Madame Duret, hold.
Down A Dark Hall is a surprisingly elegant, tonally consistent, and beautifully constructed film that never once shortchanges its target audience for the sake of cheap thrills or unintelligent storytelling. It is a pleasantly refreshing take on gothic horror that does not ever overstay its welcome as a very moody and very fun film. It is a shame that its distributor, Summit Entertainment (through Lionsgate), did not believe in it enough to give it a full theatrical release. Instead, they relegated it to a primarily VOD release, a rare move for the distributor. This is a film that demands to be seen on a big screen and an experience worthy of IMAX.
Directed by Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés (Buried, Red Lights), this film has some major atmosphere that often only comes from Spanish filmmakers à la Guillermo del Toro and J.A. Bayona. It is a gothic creation of beauty and dread that beckons you to explore into its deep, dark corners, begging you to ask questions, and shockingly having most of the answers you desire. Cortés knows he is dealing with less visceral material and finds light in creating the confined universe of Blackwood without having to relegate the film to cheapness with jump scares, fake-outs, and manipulative musical cues. There is an awareness about how the film is constructed in that it not only knows what it wants to be, but knows exactly what it does not want to be.
The craft of this film goes above and beyond anything that could have been asked for from a film of this caliber. Shot by Jarin Blaschke (The Witch, Shimmer Lake), the film feels less like a young adult fiction film and more like the artsier horror film fare of A24. All the while it paints a studio picture that emanates along the lines of Robert Wise’s 1963 The Haunting in its haunting grandeur.
Production and costume design is also top notch in the film, with the house feeling straight out of a del Toro film, bursting with character and a vaguely sinister energy you just cannot ignore. The costume design from Patricia Monné matches the grand quality of the film’s surroundings, but it is Zac Posen’s special designs for Thurman’s Madame Duret specifically that make the biggest impact in the film. The stunningly beautiful designs from Posen build Duret up from Thurman’s delicious performance into something truly irresistible.
Performances across the board are strong, though it’s Robb and Thurman who have the most screen presence, and with good reason. Thurman, given every opportunity to ham it up with a French accent and light-as-air movement, brings a real weight to this enigmatic villainess that lets the dark energy flow more naturally as a horror story. It is not over-the-top, but rather an elegantly nuanced magnetism that you just cannot look away from. Robb, known more for her roles as a child, makes a lovely case for her return into the spotlight with a similarly magnetic performance of a different, lighter energy.
There are a few parts of Down A Dark Hall that are less-than-perfect. They’re mostly present during its third act, which felt moderately rushed despite wrapping up all it needed to. There was real care in setting up the first two acts and, while the finale of the film does not squander this potential, it does not utilize the same care in resolving its problems as the previous acts did in setting them up. This also can be said for a few of the visual effects come its end, giving off a heavily CGI’d look that felt more unnecessary than messy.
Down A Dark Hall might not be particularly scary as it’s more of an engaging dramatic thriller than anything else, and it works shockingly well. Everything comes together to form a beautifully constructed, expertly captured, and solidly performed teen thriller that will connect with far more than just its target audience, which is the biggest sign that a film of this nature has done its job well. If Harry Potter, Crimson Peak, and The Conjuring became a singular film, you would have something along the lines of Down A Dark Hall, and yes, it is as good as it sounds.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.