Written in 1974, prolific young-adult novelist Lois Duncan’s “Down a Dark Hall” intriguingly anticipated some of the tropes of latterday YA fantasy-fiction blockbusters. Thus “Buried” director Rodrigo Cortés’ belated screen adaptation comes off — at least in narrative terms — as something a halfway point between “Harry Potter” and “Suspiria,” as “gifted” girls at a curious, sinister private school become increasingly susceptible to supernatural forces.
Lionsgate Premiere’s Stateside launch of this Spanish-U.S. coproduction (which has already opened in several other territories) doesn’t suggest great faith, as it’s only providing very limited theatrical exposure alongside a VOD release. Still, this is a decent modern Gothic thriller handled with sufficient style and a straight face by genre ace Cortés. His efforts, and strong performances by the young female leads, make for a movie that’s fairly strong meat by juvenile fantasy standards, if probably a tad wimpy for horror-fan tastes.
Mike Goldbach and Chris Sparling’s script takes some significant liberties, but Duncan’s general premise and overall arc remain intact: A troubled teen since the death of her father some years before, Kit (AnnaSophia Robb) is on the verge of public school expulsion when her mother (Kirsty Mitchell) and stepfather (Jim Sturgeon) accept an out-of-the-blue offer for her to attend Blackwood Boarding School. A remote, gated institution high in wooded hills, its Hogwarts-ian (but less welcoming) splendor is presided over by the imperious Mme. Durel (Uma Thurman, sporting an indeterminate mittle-European accent), with nasty Miss Olonsky (Rebecca Front) seemingly the sole “servant” (and strongarm) in employ.
Despite the imposing if rather dreary joint’s impressive scale, there are only four other girls — also semi-delinquent “problem” cases — attending this term. Among them, bully Veronica (Victoria Molores of “Teen Wolf”) immediately decides to make Kit her nemesis, while the remainder are variably unstable in more fragile ways.
Yet all soon manage to miraculously develop the “talents” Durel had promised to find in them: Her music-teacher son Jules (Noah Silver) unleashes hitherto unknown piano-playing abilities in Kit; the lady herself oversees an explosion of old-school oil painting from Sierra (Rosie Day). Lit prof Miss Sinclair (Jodhi May) encourages high Romantic prose to gush forth from Ashley (Taylor Russell), while to her bewilderment, Izzy (Isabelle Fuhrman of “Orphan”) becomes Prof. Farley’s (Pip Torrens) little math genius.
These newfound “gifts” seem less than organic, however. They take over their teenaged “instruments” not so much through inspiration, but more like a sort of possession — which leaves them drained, fearful, and in decreasing control both mentally and physically.
It’s not until past the halfway mark that the story’s supernatural elements start becoming more explicit and malevolent. Without wanting to reveal too much, suffice it to say that “Dark Hall” winds up being the scholastically-disinclined teen’s worst nightmare: It turns out those old historical painters, poets, and so forth whom you found so boring in class just might be out to kill you for the sake of their stuffy, “deathless” art.
There are some rather silly moments when the young protagonists frantically channel “greatness” in fast-motion, not unlike Moira Shearer dancing herself to death under the spell of “The Red Shoes.” But generally Cortés hits a tonal mark that works well — neither entirely teen potboiler nor full-on horror, but an effective-enough midpoint that leads briskly and atmospherically to a fiery finale. He’s helped by good design contributions in the handsome if not particularly extravagant production package (which was shot mostly in Spain), notably Victor Molero’s attractively gloomy set designs.
The five young actresses are all very good, and it’s to the film’s credit that their characters don’t boil down to familiar “types” (though some do at first glance). The adult roles aren’t quite so fortunate, even if they’re adequately handled. Thurman cuts an elegant figure, especially as clad by Zac Posen (Patricia Monne is the costume designer for everyone else), but her somewhat unconvincing villain could have used more notes of mystery and wit.