A couple of weeks ago, Down a Dark Hall quietly made its way onto Amazon and other Video on Demand services. I remember seeing it available and thinking that I would get to it eventually.
This weekend, I finally did and I could kick myself for waiting so long.
Based on the novel of the same name by Lois Duncan, the woman behind the novel on which I Know What You Did Last Summer was based, Down a Dark Hall tells the story of Katherine “Kit” Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb), a troubled young woman whose mother and stepfather have decided to send to an elite boarding school in the hopes that it will turn the girl’s life around.
Upon arriving, Kit and her fellow students soon begin to flourish in ways that they never expected excelling in art, music, literature, and mathematics where there had been little talent before.
Of course, there’s a catch to this sudden excellence, and as they delve into the secrets of the school and their mysterious headmistress, Madame Duret (Uma Thurman), they find themselves in a fight for their lives against forces far more powerful that they expected.
Down a Dark Hall is, at its core, an original, genuinely creepy thriller with an embarrassment of riches both in front of and behind the camera.
Writers Michael Goldbach (Mary Kills People) and Chris Sparling (The Atticus Institute) plumb the depths of Duncan’s source material, updating elements to bring the 1973 novel into the 21st century while never losing its unsettling, slowly building tension.
Meanwhile director Rodrigo Cortes, who previously wowed audiences with his paranormal thriller Red Lights, once again showcases his attention to detail and his gift for drawing impressive performances from his actors. Every moment leads organically to the next without a step missed.
And then there’s that amazing cast!
AnnaSophia Robb proves once and for all that she has grown into the talent that was present from the first time we saw her in films like Because of Winn-Dixie and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She is at once confident and vulnerable, raw and reserved, completely open and shielded.
In her hands, Kit becomes a complex and capable protagonist standing against Thurman’s Madame Duret.
Speaking of Uma Thurman, it was good to see her throw caution to the wind and really become the villain of the film. Duret could easily have been a caricature, stalking the halls and demanding the students bend to her will. Instead, she turns in a measured performance, balancing moments of quiet, predatory power with over-the-top, scenery melting treachery and somehow makes it all seem believable.
Isabelle Fuhrman, Victoria Moroles, Taylor Russell and Rosie Day round out the cast as Kit’s fellow students, working together as a talented ensemble, though Furhman (who fans might recognize as Esther from Orphan) and Moroles could easily steal any scene with a look or turn of phrase.
As you must have realized by now, Down a Dark Hall is a story about women, and it was refreshing to see characters who were more than stereotypes. Of course, there is conflict, but it never felt out of place nor as though it was written because “that’s how women/girls act”.
It also evened out the playing field to have a female villain whose womanhood wasn’t the sole source of her villainy. Don’t get me wrong, Madame Duret is plenty evil, but that evil is rooted in power and wealth in much the same way that we’ve seen male villains written in the past.
Does that make the film more socially progressive? I’m not certain, but I am certain that it will be the topic of discussion after many socially-minded viewers watch this film!
I would remiss in this review if I did not bring up the film’s brilliant score composed by Victor Reyes (Grand Piano). It is decadent and lush and harrowing, amplifying the fear one moment while softly underscoring the tenderest feelings of love and loss in the next.
In fact, one of the most memorable moments in the film comes when Kit sits down at a piano, overcome by the power surrounding her and begins to play a wild and maniacal waltz that would make Liszt green with envy. The music, in that moment, is utterly transcendent of time and space and radiates emotion far more powerful than words could express.
And then there’s the school itself!
Its palatial presence is foreboding; its shadows keep secrets, and its twisting hallways are dizzying and as the title implies, sinister and dark. Every good haunted house film needs an excellent location and Cortes hit a gold mine here.
Down a Dark Hall is currently available to rent on Amazon, Fandango Now and iTunes. Check out the trailer below and watch it today!