Setting your gothic horror movie in an “old dark house” is almost a prerequisite – Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Peter Medak’s The Changeling are prime examples of this done well – but if all you have is dark halls and spooky noises to offer, there is a good chance your film will be forgotten, and there are many films guilty of using this crutch while doing nothing original with it. Enter Rodrigo Cortés‘s adaptation of Lois Duncan’s young adult story Down a Dark Hall, which deals with an all-girl Hogwarts, if Hogwarts was designed by Dario Argento and housed juvenile delinquents instead of wizards, and for his film, Cortés decided to add a little mystery to spice up the proceedings.
Kit Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb) is your typical troubled youth: her father died when she was young and she has been acting up ever since, facing expulsion for setting fire to her school, she is offered a spot at Blackwood Academy, an exclusive all-girls school that headmistress Madame Duret (Uma Thurman) ensures will bring out one’s hidden talents. Packed off by her beleaguered mother (Kirsty Mitchell), and sad sack stepdad (Jim Sturgeon), poor Kit soon finds herself in a situation far beyond her control; stranger yet is finding out that there are to be only four other classmates at Blackwood.
Joining Kit at Blackwood is a small collection of misfits, Izzy (Isabelle Fuhrman), Sierra (Rosie Day), Ashley (Taylor Russell) and Veronica (Victoria Moroles) who will be Kit’s primary school antagonist, that is until the supernatural shit hits the fan. The amount of staff on hand is equally small, there being only four teachers, with Madame Duret teaching art, Professor Farley (Pip Torrens) mathematics, Lit Prof Miss Sinclair (Jodhi May) and music is to be taught by Duret’s hunky son Jules (Noah Silver).
The only other staff member, Mrs. Olonsky (Rebecca Front), is the powerful right arm of Madame Duret — but bullies and imposing matrons are the least of these girls’ problems, for suddenly Kit is playing the piano like a virtuoso, Sierra is quickly painting like an old master, Izzy becomes a math prodigy – despite previously having failed algebra – and high romantic prose is gushing forth from Ashley as if she was the offspring of Byron and Shelley. Now becoming suddenly gifted may not seem like a problem – and at first it seems pretty damn cool – but soon the obsession with these new abilities devolves into mania where sleep, food and sanity are left in the rear-view mirror. These newfound gifts seem more like possession than anything organically achieved, and Kit starts to suspect that something more devious is at work here.
As Kit’s classmates become drained, as well as fearfully plagued by night visits by their dark muses, she eventually teams up with Veronica to go full on Nancy Drew, with late night researching of the library and explorations of the forbidden wing. Can these two uncover the mystery of Blackwood before the forces of evil destroy them? Could Madame Duret be some kind of educational succubi? As secrets are exposed – and villains uncovered – we are treated to several suspenseful and unnerving moments, all stemming from the fact that we do actually care if these misfits survive.
Down a Dark Hall offers a nice spooky atmosphere – phantom figures dancing in out of the edge of your vision – and the young cast all give very good performances, Victoria Molores’s hard bitten bully is a particular delight, and Uma Thurman does her best in what is a pretty traditional role for this kind of film. As the film is based on a book for young readers, it’s not all that surprising that there isn’t a plethora of scares – plenty of creepy moments but not much else to give young viewers nightmares – but the mystery behind Blackwood Academy is really what sells this movie.
When the film’s supernatural elements go into overdrive, we truly feel for these poor girls – being seriously outnumbered as they are is totally unfair – and Madame Duret makes for quite the villain. The costumes by Patricia Monne are simply beautiful and the sets are also quite extraordinary, which is pretty much required in this type of film, but Víctor Molero‘s production designs are really something to behold, and could be held up against even the most prestigious films. Hardcore horror fans may find this move a little quaint at times, and it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to similar films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, but overall, this is a solid horror/mystery movie, one that I can recommend to parents as a good entry into the genre.