I would love to give props to the creators of Down a Dark Hall for crafting an old-school Gothic thriller that relies on a gradual accumulation of unease rather than overt shocks, but filmmakers who opt for the slow-burn need to turn up the heat in a way that this film cannot quite manage. Down a Dark Hall is moody and creepy but seldom sends shivers up the spine - though the finale does deliver a satisfying emotional catharsis that pays off on the time invested watching till the end.
Kit (AnnaSophia Robb) is a troubled teen accused, among other things, of arson. Running out of options, Kit's mother and her mother's boyfriend accept an offer to ship Kit off to an isolated facility. (In an early sign that Down a Dark Hall wants to be something more than a mindless genre piece, the script pointedly does not make Mom's live-in boyfriend a dumbass, even though Kit responds to him as if he is.) It turns out that the establishment is not really a treatment facility but an academy. Instead of traditional therapy, Madame Duret (Uma Thurman) and a handful of teachers, including her son, offer instruction in art, mathematics, literature, and music, promising that their students will be transformed from misfits to accomplished individuals.
Needless to say, the promise is too good to be true, and before long things start going bump in the night. Kit finds her fingers dexterously racing up and down the piano keyboard, while her fellow female students are soon writing beautiful poetry, painting amazing landscapes, and developing complicated math theorems. All of this is visualized in a memorable montage of each student developing her own skill, while the swirling camera reveals glimpses of mysterious figures lurking the background. Who or what are they?
Unfortunately, the revelation is not much of a spoiler, because the film pretty much gives away its surprise before the opening credits, with a quote from Homer asking the muse to speak "through me." Long before Kit coaxes Madame Ducet into delivering a traditional villain's monologue explaining the plot, it is apparent that these shadowy inhabitants of the academy are ghosts using the girls as mediums to express themselves on the earthly plane.
In one of the film's underdeveloped ideas, we can infer that Kit and the other girls were chosen because they had some connection with the afterlife: Kit had a vision of her father on the night he died in a plane accident. In another underdeveloped idea, Madame Duret says that, when the door to the other side is open, it can be hard to tell exactly what will come through. This is presumably to explain the presence of an angry, burned-looking ghost who does most of the scary stuff instead of delivering artistic inspiration. His exact identity and backstory are unclear; he's seems to be there mostly to provide the film's few overt scares, for inclusion in the coming attractions trailer.
Down a Dark Hall is layered in enough atmosphere to fill a dozen dirigibles. The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is deliberately desaturated of color to the point of appearing sepia-toned. Combined with some judicious CGI shots of the academy's shadowy exterior at night, this creates a modern version of ominous aura that used to be achieved by photographing haunted house movies in black-and-white.
In keeping with this visual style, the film eschews not only bloodshed but also most of the modern clichés of supernatural cinema that are the legacy of J-Horror and Blumhouse Productions. One has credit the filmmakers for reserving their first jump-scare until an hour into the running time. Instead, Down a Dark Hall wants to lure viewers into its world with a sense of anticipation, which is neatly achieved in the first reel with two brief scenes that cutaway before anything actually happens (one of a girl beginning a plunge out a window, one of Kit's dad sadly walking away in the snow), leaving us to wonder, "What will happen next?"
This subtle approach could have worked if the unfolding drama had been more gripping. Unfortunately, the script does not clearly define Kit's fellow students, except for Veronica (Victoria Morales), who is the aggressive, cynical one. Consequently, the audience is little invested in their fates, and the gradual dropping-like-flies scenario doesn't register meaningfully as each girl becomes obsessed with her new skill to the point of debilitating obsession. Moreover, some of their actions seem arbitrary as when the math student goes rapturously insane at the sight of fire near the conclusion (what's the connection between flame and arithmetic?). A similar problem pertains to Madame Ducet's staff, who are on board with her sinister program but in a couple of cases have a last-minute change of heart for reasons that are best described as deus ex machina.
Kit comes across a little better than the others, because she is given at least one characteristic beyond being a problem child: her father admired her perseverance. She gets little chance to demonstrate this, but it does pay off in the end. Until then, the film does not do enough to make her stand out (except for casting Robb, who makes the best of what she is given). The character's one truly clever moment comes during a phone call to her mother - supervised by Madame Ducet - during which Kit gives deliberately unsatisfying answers until her worried mother is prompted to ask, "Is something wrong? Do you want us to come get you?" Robb replies "yes" in a tone perfectly calibrated to get her mother's attention without provoking Ducet's suspicion.
The remaining cast does their best. Though sporting a "French" accent that sounds more vaguely middle-European, Thurman manages to initially appear more serious than sinister; likewise, Pip Torrens conveys a disarming professionalism as the math teacher, so that even though the audience knows these two are up to something, we accept that Kit and company would trust them. Rebecca Front makes a memorable impression as the sinister and stoic Mrs. Olonsky, who turns out to be Ducet's strong-arm woman; something about her suggests a more thuggish version of the right-hand woman played by Alida Valli in Suspiria.
In fact, with its artsy academy whose headmistress is hiding a supernatural secret, Down a Dark Hall comes across like a milder version of Dario Argento's 1977 classic. In a way, the titles tell you what you need to know about the differences between the two films: "Down a Dark Hall" is bland and generic; "Suspiria" is euphonious and intriguing. Whereas Argento amplified the visual and aural pyrotechnics to drown out narrative shortcomings, Down a Dark Hall allows its scenario to play out with the bravura style that could have enlivened the proceedings.
The result is watchable, even admirable in ambition, but too tame to truly thrill. Fortunately, the fiery finale (which could have been lifted from one of Roger Corman's Poe films) does more than provide a little spectacle: it also gives Kit a chance to resolve her personal story in a way that rings a surprisingly heartfelt note. Perhaps that is where the trip "down a dark hall" was always headed - too bad the journey was not as interesting as the destination.
Note: Despite the English-speaking cast, the film was shot in Spain with a Spanish crew. The 2016 copyright date suggest the film has been on the shelf awhile seeking a U.S. release.
Down a Dark Hall is currently playing at Universal Citywalk Hollywood's AMC Theeatre and the Laemmle Music Hall. It is also available On Demand and through iTunes.