The mood is agreeably creepy but the plot grows increasingly silly in “Down a Dark Hall,” a supernatural thriller adapted from a 1974 novel by the late Lois Duncan, a recognized pioneer in the development of YA horror fiction. Boosted by strong lead turns from AnnaSophia Robb and Uma Thurman and plenty of atmosphere (courtesy of stellar work by production designer Victor Molero and striking widescreen visuals from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who make expert use of locations in Barcelona and the Canary Islands), Rodrigo Cortés’ movie looks great for the most part (though the burning-building effects at the close aren’t remotely convincing), but grows more and more absurd as it wanders down that titular hallway to a predictably upbeat conclusion.
The setting is a sinister school called Blackwood to which troubled Kit (Robb) is sent by her mother (Kirsty Mitchell) and stepfather (Jim Sturgeon) after they hear the spiel from its recruiter Dr. Sinclair (Jodhi May), who emphasizes the curriculum’s emphasis on actual practice in the arts.
Upon her arrival, Kit finds that she will be one of only five girls there—all with problems of their own—the others being fragile Sierra (Rosie Day), nervous Izzy (Isabelle Fuhrman), submissive Ashley (Taylor Russell) and belligerent Veronica (Victoria Moroles). All will be taught painting by the headmistress, Madame Duret (Thurman), music by her son Jules (Noah Silver), writing by Sinclair and math by Professor Farley (Pip Torrens), though four of the students will specialize, each under the tutelage of one of the teachers. Veronica is left out; her specialty seems to consist of bullying the others, with a particular focus on Kit. Seeing to it that everyone behaves is the rather fearsome Miss Olonsky (Rebecca Front), the resident disciplinarian.
On the surface it appears that the curriculum, combined with extra-individual mentoring, is a great success. Soon Sierra is painting lushly romantic canvases, Ashley is producing ripe poetry, and Izzy is solving difficult math problems. As for Kit, she shows off hitherto unknown talent at the piano, even composing works of her own for the keyboard.
But the students’ productivity has a manic, frenzied quality to it. And the girls are further spooked by what appear to be ghostly figures sliding past open doors and down the dark hallway they’re been cautioned to avoid.
What’s really going on at Blackwood Academy will not be revealed here, but Duncan might have gotten the idea from the career of so-called medium Rosemary Brown, who made claims that got her short-lived fame a few years previously. Suffice it to say that the notion is a pretty nutty one, especially when given the obsessive quality that the Blackwood faculty bring to it and the mediocre figures from the past to which they dedicate their efforts. (The book was much more ambitious in that respect.)
Nonetheless there’s pleasure to be had from Robb’s committed turn as spunky Kit, and Thurman, with a thick accent and the mien of an evil Disney villainess, is obviously having a fine old time. Moroles, with her scrunched-up, peevish face, adds some welcome dark tones, as does Front. The rest of the cast are fine, and Victor Reyes contributes a moody score, although the pieces he crafts to represents Kit’s masterpieces are, as usual in such fare, blandly sappy stuff.
“Down a Dark Hall” is somewhat of an anomaly among modern horror movies in that it depends more on style than shocks and gore to achieve its ends. While that puts the picture a leg above much of the competition, however, it’s not enough to lift it into the ranks of the best examples of the genre.