A onetime New Line property unceremoniously dumped into limited release, Luis Alejandro Berdejo’s supernatural thriller “The New Daughter” is nowhere near as bad as its invisible marketing strategy might suggest. But that’s not to imply that it’s worth seeking out. Kevin Costner starrer boasts an impressive English-language debut from Spanish teenager Ivana Baquero (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and a well-constructed first half, but its many cliches begin to undo its spell long before a ridiculous third act squanders all remaining goodwill. Business will likely be extremely slow, as only hardcore horrorphiles seem to know the film even exists.
While the vogue for moody, Japanese-inspired horror seems to have largely subsided, “The New Daughter” shows that the genre can still be an excellent proving ground for young filmmakers to hone their technical chops. Here, Berdejo displays a fantastic flair for locked-down shot composition and framing (the photography and production design are both of an unexpectedly high caliber), though he’s overly reliant on jarring jump cuts and sound effects to conjure tension.
A particularly downbeat Costner stars as John James, a newly single father shaken by his unfaithful wife’s departure. For reasons never adequately explained, he decides the best way to help his two children work out their maternal abandonment issues is to move them a hundred miles away, to a secluded old house in rural South Carolina. With creaky floorboards, spiders in the silverware drawer and a mysterious earthen mound outside, the house screams bad news even before John starts discovering strange footprints and ominous movement in the woods nearby.
Neither of John’s young children — pre-teen Luisa (Baquero) and 8-year-old Sam (Gattlin Griffith, who after also limning Angelina Jolie’s missing son in “Changeling,” is becoming uncomfortably experienced playing innocents in mortal peril) — much like the place either, with Luisa becoming peculiarly withdrawn. Soon she’s spending all her time outside alone, falling into catatonic trances and showing up covered in mud and strange scars, while the hapless John tries to discern how much of this is just part of “becoming a woman.”
Though the premise couldn’t be more hackneyed, many of these early scenes are impressively mounted, and at times the film even gestures toward some seriously interesting psychosexual subtext. Yet it all collapses in the third act, as John is made to run an obstacle course of plot contrivances that prevent him from simply moving his family to one of the Eastern seaboard’s plentiful unhaunted houses. Eventually, the ominous woodland creatures move up into the foreground, and they do not benefit from the exposure.
Rated PG-13, “The New Daughter” is largely bloodless and totally boobless, though it nonetheless contains a horrific offscreen death, a mutilated cat, nearly constant sequences of young children in danger, and a truly appalling final shot that would have certainly prompted fresh scrutiny of the MPAA’s sanity had the film obtained a wider release.