A $5 script gets the $50 million treatment in “Hide and Seek,” a routine haunted child psychothriller gussied up with A-list casting led by Robert De Niro and tyke du jour Dakota Fanning. Clearly dumped in the post-Christmas frame for hit-and-run business — pic goes into rapid worldwide roll-out in the six weeks following its Jan. 28 stateside opening — “Hide” looks likely to scare up reasonable returns on the basis of name players and a slick trailer, but few involved will seek to put this one on their resumes.
A dialed-down, bespectacled De Niro plays Dr. David Callaway, a Manhattan psychologist with a cute young daughter, Emily (Fanning), who loves to play hide-and-seek games at bedtime, and a wife, Alison (Amy Irving), who dotes over their kid but seems strangely dissatisfied in her marriage. “Some things are beyond therapy,” she says mysteriously, before being found in a tub of blood in the middle of a cold January night by David. As he holds his dead wife’s body, Emily watches from the bathroom door.
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After consulting with child psychologist Katherine (Famke Janssen), a former student of his, David decides he needs to be “a fulltime father” to the traumatized Emily, and moves upstate to the rural burg of Woodlands (pop. 2,206) to get away from the city. Peace and quiet are exactly what they get when they move into a spacious old house near a lake: as the tight-lipped sheriff, Hafferty (Dylan Baker), and the creepy realtor, Haskins (David Chandler), tell David, the place is mostly a summertime community.
Emily has by now developed the glazed, thousand-yard stare that screwed-up kids develop in horror movies, as well as a habit of silently communing with the woods around the house. Hide-and-seek games with dad are no longer any fun for the precocious 9-year-old and, when she tells David she’s thrown away her favorite doll because she has a new friend called Charlie, David starts to worry. Especially when she says Charlie is not a doll.
By-the-numbers script by newcomer Ari Schlossberg takes its time laying the groundwork, from suspiciously over-folksy neighbors (Melissa Leo, Robert John Burke) to Emily’s gradual fascination with Charlie, who never seems to be around when David’s there. Fright quotient moves up a notch in the second act, as David, repeatedly awakened at two in the morning by nightmares about his dead wife, finds a series of ghastly messages scrawled on the bathroom wall, plus some nasty things in the tub.
Aussie-born actor-director John Polson (“Siam Sunset,” “Swimfan”) directs as if he’s discovering the psycho-horror genre for the first time. Tech package is immaculate, pacing cool and assured, and the red herrings laid out with professional expertise. But it slowly becomes clear the only thing making the movie watchable is its heavyweight casting, which is completely out of kilter with Schlossberg’s flyweight script. When pic springs its Big Twist 80 minutes in, prior to the feeble climax, it’s clear there really is nothing under the emperor’s clothes.
De Niro phones in a low-key performance that leaves plenty of room for the 10-year-old Fanning to shine, in her third (undeservedly) R-rated movie. Though she brings no extra wrinkles to a standard role, she hits all her marks with professional skill. Irving has only a few minutes’ screen time (including her flashbacks), while Janssen, who’s done sturdy genre service in the past, is largely wasted as the child psych who drives up to help Emily escape her demon. Onscreen for only a handful of scenes as a divorcee who takes a liking to David, Elisabeth Shue is window dressing.
As a lower-budget, no-name, gleefully generic shocker, “Hide and Seek” could at least have been fun. Instead, even more than “Swimfan,” it’s a pic that struts around in fine clothes while never acknowledging its essential trashiness.