Nancy Drew has been solving mysteries going on 90 years now, and as such, this teen sleuth has constantly been evolving with the times. In films, she first appeared in the 1930s film series starring Bonita Granville, which ran four films concluding with Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, then she made her television debut in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries back in the 70s, where she shared billing with her male counterparts, then she got a second shot at television with a 90s show simply titled Nancy Drew — sadly this one was a dud and only lasted 13 episodes. Then, in 2002, Disney Studios put forth a Nancy Drew movie in the hopes of kick-starting a new series, but it failed to garner much praise and is mostly forgotten. Nancy got her next break back onto the big screen with the 2007 Nancy Drew movie starring Emma Roberts, and though not a box office smash, it was still a delightful little outing. All of this brings us to the 2019 release of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, starring the young actress who played Beverly in the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s It.
When a character has been solving crimes for nine decades, you’re going to see a lot of changes, some cosmetic while others a little more drastic; for instance, in the original 1930 book of Nancy and the Hidden Staircase, Nancy’s father gave her a revolver for protection, which, unless the NRA plans on their own remake, this isn’t something modern audiences can expect to see any time soon, but it’s stuff like computers and social media that truly shake up the world of Nancy Drew. With 2019’s Nancy and the Hidden Staircase, the filmmakers decided to go the route of telling a Nancy Drew origin story, where we learn what brought her into the world of teen sleuthing.
In this adaptation, we find Nancy Drew (Sophia Lillis) and her father Carson (Sam Trammell) as recently arrived residents to the rural town of River Heights, having moved there after Nancy’s mother died and her father being unable to handle living in the city they loved together. Nancy isn’t finding it too easy settling into a small community after growing up in Chicago — being in a town that has not one but two horses is a bit of a challenge. We first meet Nancy as she skateboards her way down the center of Main Street — showing a complete disregard for traffic laws — and when she soon discovers that her friend Bess (Mackenzie Graham) has been a victim of cyberbullying, she and her other pal George (Zoe Renee) form a trio of vengeance and set forth to dish out some “restorative justice,” which involves taking down local rich boy, and all around douchebag, Derek Barnes (Evan Castelloe). This involves sneaking into the boys’ locker room and rigging a showerhead to release a chemical that will turn Derek’s skin bright blue — using some kind of magical time release dye — and streaming his humiliation live online, but unfortunately this act does constitute as a crime, which results in Sheriff Marchbanks (Jay DeVon Johnson) sentencing her to community service. Lucky for us, this brings her into contact with Flora (Linda Lavin), an elderly and eccentric shut-in who seems to be having ghost problems, and before you can say “Scooby-Dooby-Doo,” Nancy Drew is on her way to solving her first mystery.
Flora lives in a historical mansion, Twin Elms, which she believes to be haunted, so Nancy volunteers to investigate this ghostly phenomenon — it certainly beats picking up trash in the park — and she is joined on her haunted sleepover by Helen Corning (Laura Wiggins), who is not only Flora’s niece but also the girlfriend of Derek Barnes. Can you say awkward? Helen falls into the category of High School Mean Girl, being bitchy and catty to those she considers beneath her social standing, but this film fights against the cliché by having her slowly being won over by Nancy and her friends, eventually becoming one of the gang.
Sophia Lillis is simply perfect as the teenage sleuth, with her take on the character being a confident, redheaded millennial who personifies the classic character’s best traits — intelligence, independence, and an unwavering belief in justice — while also keeping everything fun and exciting, never getting bogged down with too much teen drama. Where Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase missteps is in the mystery itself and considering this is primarily a movie revolving around a crime-solving teen, that is a pretty big misstep. While watching this movie I had to wonder if the writers had even read the original book, or even seen the first movie adaptation for that matter, because the mystery depicted here is not only ridiculous — with supernatural phenomenon being created by crooks that would be literally impossible to manufacture in the real world — but it misses the biggest element from the book, that there were two houses and a hidden staircase that revealed a tunnel which connected them. This movie, strangely enough, calls Flora’s home “Twin Elms” which could have been a clue to there being a second house, one that is linked to Flora’s, but sadly all we get is a hidden staircase that leads to a secret passageway and a massive cellar.
The plot of the original book dealt with your basic “locked room mystery” with Nancy being brought in to figure out how valuable items were going missing from a Civil War-era mansion, items from rooms that were securely locked. Now, in this updating of the mystery, we find Nancy, Helen and Aunt Flora fleeing from invisible forces — being attacked by cupboards and drawers opening violently on their own, witnessing objects levitating in the air, and even a faceless spectral figure. And how were such supernatural phenomena being orchestrated? Well the cupboards and drawers had poles attached to the backs of them and were manipulated from inside the secret passageway — though this is possible, the fact that Flora didn’t notice broom handle-sized poles attached to all her drawers I found a bit unrealistic — but what of the floating candles and faceless specters that terrorized our trio? Turns out that the villains were pumping a powerful hallucinogen throughout the house’s air conditioning, which of course would not work as depicted in this movie, because there is no way to ensure that each person would witnesses the exact same hallucination. During the candle floating sequence, Flora comments, “Oh god, I hate this part,” which implies that the villains are somehow able to repeatedly trigger specific hallucinations, and not just cause an old lady to see pink unicorns or a chorus line of naked Elvis impersonators.
Sure, one can defend this by pointing out that “It’s just a kid’s movie, don’t take it so seriously,” but decades of Nancy Drew mysteries didn’t have to rely on such cheap theatrics, so why now? Even the villain’s motivation doesn’t pass the smell test, which has something to do with scaring Flora into selling her home so that they can build a new rail line through town — which sounds more like a plot to an episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! — but with Flora refusing to sign, things quickly devolve into kidnapping and planned murder. Of course, a person signing over their home moments before being murdered would most likely raise a red flag or two, so I’m not sure that these villains have thought things through.
As ridiculous and nonsensical as the plot is, director Katt Shea has managed to wrangle together a talented cast, who do their best to sell the wacky shenanigans, and the updating of the Nancy Drew mysteries allows our heroine to be computer literate, able to cleverly access security cameras and even break into the school science lab to analyze clues. This Nancy Drew isn’t the squeaky clean sleuth of the 1930s, as she’s got a definite edge to her in this installment, one that allows her to break the rules to solve a case. As mentioned, this movie works as an origin story, with Nancy discovering her calling as a mystery solver, and I look forward to seeing how they develop her character with further installments. Will she maintain her rebellious nature, or will she settle down and become a more stable heroine? In whichever direction they decide to take this incarnation of Nancy Drew, it looks to be a fun ride.
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (2019)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
Sophie Lillis is a rising young actress with a lot of promise and her take on Nancy Drew is as fresh as it is fun and exciting, which makes this version of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase a mystery well worth solving.