Comic movies about (presumably) imaginary friends have run the gamut from the gentle giant-rabbit humor of Jimmy Stewart’s overrated “Harvey” (1950) to the appallingly crude antics of the deservedly forgotten Rik Mayall in the farcical “Drop Dead Fred” (1991), but another segment of the genre has been in the realm of horror, with Robert Mulligan’s creepy “The Other” (1972) probably taking pride of pride. Now we’re offered “Hide and Seek,” which boasts the talents of no less an acting icon that Robert De Niro as David Callaway, a NYC psychologist who grows increasingly concerned about the baleful influence that an invisible playmate named Charlie apparently has on his lovely but troubled daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning) after the suicide of his wife Alison (Amy Irving) and he moves with the tyke to an isolated house upstate–a locale much better for shadows and shocks than the metropolis, of course. Also involved in the spooky goings-on are Katherine (Famke Janssen), a child psychologist (and student of David’s) whom he calls upon to help Emily; Elizabeth (Elisabeth Shue), an ebullient local woman who makes the mistake of becoming romantically involved with the widower; Sheriff Hafferty (Dylan Baker), the predictably ineffectual local lawman; and Laura and Steven (Melissa Leo and Robert John Burke), a highly-strung neighboring couple who have recently suffered a bereavement of their own.
“Hide and Seek” is the second effort by actor-turned-director John Polson designed to generate cinematic goosebumps. The first was the 2002 teen-stalker flick “Swimfan,” which slickly but drearily followed its prescribed pattern to a predictable conclusion, which involved a damsel-in-distress as well as a flawed but ultimately right-minded hero. (His only other picture, the picaresque Australian comedy “Siam Sunset,” was mostly an exercise in quirkiness.) There are more opportunities for surprise this time around, since stories like this one can take unforeseen turns more freely than a simple obsessed-woman tale, however young she might be; and neophyte scripter Ari Schlossberg does in fact try to come up with something misleading and unexpected. But while it wouldn’t be fair to reveal the big twist that Schlossberg contrives (and which Polson executes onscreen in a reasonably assured fashion), it can be said without spoiling things for viewers that it turns out to be both silly and–if you have a yen for stories of this type–oddly predictable. The upshot is that the picture has to rely for its effect mostly on the performances and on atmospheric photography and scary music. In the latter respects matters are in good hands: cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and scorer John Ottman (“The Usual Suspects” and “Apt Pupil”) are expert craftsman, and their contributions are stellar. The performances, on the other hand, are more variable. It’s certainly interesting to watch De Niro playing a reserved, bookish type as the buttoned-down psychologist, but he actually doesn’t do much all that unconventional with the character–it’s rather like the performances he’s given in the past as likable working-class stiffs–and toward the close, when he becomes more emotional, he frankly goes over the top (the intent, perhaps, but no less unhappy for that). Fanning looks eerier than usual with dark hair and big eyes continually open in amazement; it’s a very mannered turn, however, and there’s something inherently unpleasant about seeing a young child kept in such continuous peril for nearly two hours. The rest of the cast go through their assigned paces well enough–Janssen and Shue are agreeably supportive, Irving does her brief bit decently (although she looks terribly haggard), and Baker carries off his blank-eyed lawman shtick more than adequately. Leo and Burke have a more difficult time because they’re playing suspicious red herrings, and both have to turn up the oddness quotient precipitously, but that’s what the script demands.
From a purely technical perspective, “Hide and Seek” does what it sets out to do fairly skillfully. It builds up a sense of unease and foreboding, and the typical gotcha moments (figures suddenly appearing from behind closed doors or through windows, the obligatory cat, shrieking, abruptly jumping out at somebody) register–although the montage flashbacks that periodically intrude are, to be honest, an exceptionally cheap device. But ultimately the narrative resolution, when it comes, is one of those post-Shyamalan tricks that doesn’t really come off, especially since you’re likely to have seen it telegraphed well in advance; and after it happens, the denouement–a typical cat-and-mouse affair–is dragged out entirely too long. The explicit gruesomeness is also unsettling–not in a good way–particularly because a child is involved. By the time the picture winds up you’re likely to feel a little unclean. In other words, it may be an efficient horror exercise, but not an exercise you’ll much enjoy participating in.