Through misty hills and forests and beyond the tall gates lies Blackwood School, isolated, imposing, full of echoes and whispers and secrets, kept hidden down a dark hall in the disused wing of the building forbidden to students as unsafe, closed until repairs can be completed, but with only five students and five staff there is still plenty space.
Her mother at the end of her tether after the latest incident at her former school which saw her summoned once again to the guidance counselor, Kit Gordy (Race to Witch Mountain‘s AnnaSophia Robb) can only see parallels with a prison sentence in her exile to Blackwood, her cellphone confiscated, her fellow students hostile and all that is missing the bars on the windows.
Despite her dislike of the rules of the ridiculously accented principal Madame Duret (Gattaca‘s Uma Thurman), Kit quickly warms to her music teacher Jules (The Borgias‘ Noah Silver) who draws from her unknown talents at the piano, and soon the other girls are also displaying prowess in art, in poetry, in mathematics, their new skills dominating their waking hours and their restless nights.
Based on the 1974 novel by Lois Duncan who also wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer and Summer of Fear, both of which have also been filmed, the latter starring Linda Blair and directed by Wes Craven, Down a Dark Hall is a similar thriller with elements of horror and the supernatural, directed by Red Lights‘ Rodrigo Cortés and with a roster of producers which includes Twilight‘s Stephenie Meyer, queen of the young adult genre.
The text consciously updated from the early seventies setting of the novel for a modern audience, with boarding schools no longer in vogue there has to be a reason for the five “special” girls to be gathered; thus, they are of necessity “bad girls” who cannot be educated within the mainstream, though in truth they are all spoiled and selfish children trying to make out that they are tough; Teen Wolf’s Victoria Moroles less of a bad seed and more of a bad attitude.
Their performances hampered by the flat dialogue of Michael Goldbach and Chris Sparling’s adaptation which spells out the plot and in which no time is given to differentiate the girls as individuals to whom the audience can empathise, almost immediately upon arrival the nightmares begin and the shadows lurking in the corners of the rooms start to manifest, leaving the film in an interminable holding pattern.
Beautifully filmed and lit in stunning locations and sets, like Red Lights it is set in America but filmed in Spain yet Cortés fails to utilise the scenery to best advantage, enclosing the cast in Blackwood and the titular dark corridors, never setting a contrast with the daylight and allowing his characters to breathe or establish their personalities beyond surly, sulky and stroppy.
There are moments when Down a Dark Hall can be magnificent and atmospheric, the musical interludes as Kit is possessed by the muse, the candlelit masked ball, but it would have made a deeper impression had it not been punctuated by jump scares and swarms of digital birds smashing through windows, cheap thrills for a teen audience which are wasted in light of the inexplicable 18 certificate the film carries.
Down a Dark Hall released on DVD by Lionsgate on Monday 22nd October