Stabbed in the chest with scissors by her mentally ill mom, the titular teen in “The Haunting of Molly Hartley” has an understandably tough time in prep school — but she certainly won’t fail to convince the pic’s core audience that dealing with parents is, like, murder. The directorial debut of production exec Mickey Liddell, this softcore thriller runs strictly by the numbers, though a shrewdly garnered PG-13 rating and a well-timed Halloween weekend bow combined to help “Molly” scare up $6 million from 2,652 screams, er, screens. Easter wouldn’t have boded as well for the Freestyle release, with its amateurish characterization of evangelical Christians as psychotic freaks.
Newly transplanted to God’s country after her institutionalized mother’s aforementioned attack, Boston girl Molly (Haley Bennett, the Hannah Montana-esque pop star in “Music & Lyrics”) lands at tony Huntington Academy, whose English teacher gives the Bible to his students, ostensibly to provide context for Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Molly gets a nosebleed upon receipt of this holy assignment, followed by a panic attack in the girls’ bathroom. Liddell stops just shy of throwing satanic possession into the mix, as Molly’s worried dad (Jake Weber) seeks help from a guidance counselor (Nina Siemaszko) rather than an exorcist.
Poor Molly, who continues to imagine that strung-out Mom (well-played by Marin Hinkle) has escaped from the sanitarium to wreak more havoc, is eventually taken to a hospital and examined by a John McCain lookalike (Kevin Cooney) who diagnoses a tumor in her sinuses. The tumor, like the film, turns out to be benign.
Exploiting a high schooler’s anxiety over turning 18, “Molly Hartley” does its best to smuggle as much slasher-movie formula as possible into the no-ID-required package. Film makes creative use of the PG-13’s one permissible F-bomb and, in place of nudity, includes a brief shot of Bennett in a revealing brassiere. Vaguely resembling the young Shannen Doherty or Daphne Zuniga, round-faced Bennett is appealing, if not exactly magnetic in the lead role, and her cringe-inducing dialogue — “My head hurts. I hear things. Everything’s messed up,” Molly tearfully tells Dad — doesn’t do her any favors.
Young cast also includes “Gossip Girl” hunk Chace Crawford as Molly’s flirtatious suitor; Shanna Collins as a wiggy born-again girl who repeatedly wonders whether our heroine has been saved; Annalynne McCord as the requisite rich bitch; and, liveliest of these, Shannon Woodward as a punk-rebel chick with self-described “anger issues.”
With Liddell managing to conjure only one effective jolt in 80-odd minutes, pic’s precious few highlights include a regrettably brief keg-party catfight and an emergency baptism gone horrifically bad. Film wasn’t shown to the press in advance, but test screenings can be surmised from the ludicrously abrupt, upbeat and utterly incoherent finale set at Huntington’s graduation ceremony. Prep school will save us all, apparently — although tech credits throughout the pic are hardly upper-class.