January has not been a good month for movie moms this year. She found out the hard way in White Noise and even harder in the equally unsatisfying thriller, “Hide and Seek.”
It’s 2:06 A.M. and Dr. David Callaway (Robert DeNiro) wakes up to the sound of water drops slowing splashing into what we all expect to be an unpleasant bathtub. What David sees is horrible, and it’s unspeakably worse when his 11-year-old daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning), witnesses what her mother has done to herself with a razorblade.
Being that he’s a psychologist and all, David figures the best thing for them to do is to leave their old house where “memories” exist and find a new place for them to move on and start a new life.
Being that “Hide and Seek” is a horror movie and all, David picks the worst possible place to bring his vulnerable daughter to. Eerie closets, sprawling basements, outdoor caves, creepy neighbors, a nosy sheriff (Dylan Baker) with keys to every home, and a cold winter season at a time when few people populate the deserted neighborhood are just a few characteristics that describe this upstate community where the Callaways now reside.
Emily isn’t making any progress. She doesn’t talk much and keeps to herself. She doesn’t have any friends. Or does she? His name is Charley, she tells her inquisitive father (though perhaps not inquisitive enough), but he doesn’t like being talked about and is no fan of David.
But he plays it off as any father of a child who just lost her mother would. Emily has obviously created an imaginary friend and is using it as a way of venting her anger and frustration.
But when things start going bump in night it David becomes concerned. As he should be. It isn抰 normal for a young girl to write “You let her DIE!” all over the bathroom walls in red crayon and blame it on her imaginary friend.
David requests a visit from an old colleague, Katherine (Famke Janssen), a former student of his and now a psychologist as well who specializes in children. When David and Emily lived in the city they met with Katherine frequently and she is one of the few people Emily trusts and is happy to be around. Perhaps she will be important later on.
Katherine initially agrees with David that Emily is simply talking to an imaginary friend; a sadistic friend who likes to play hide and seek in the basement and give the Callaways a good scare once and awhile. After all, David was sure he turned the gas stove down when the kettle started to boil.
Trying to get Emily to make new, real friends, David invites over a nice woman, Elizabeth (Elisabeth Shue), and her young girl for a play date. Emily does not want anymore friends and does something to make sure no little girls will ever be coming back to her house again.
But maybe this isn’t the work of Emily. Maybe Charlie is real.
With each passing scene Emily begins acting more macabre and does the number performed by every modern horror film pre-adolescent, which is to draw ghastly portraits of deceased people with black and red crayon, and hang them on the walls for the camera to jaggedly pan across.
When with real people she’s depressed and quiet, but in her room she giggles, talks to the walls and — of course — plays hide and seek. Elizabeth walks in asks if she can join in on the fun. Emily smiles sinisterly. Charlie must be ready to play with new people.
But the pacing of the film is too slow to appreciate what director John Polson is trying to achieve. At one point I was just waiting for Charlie or anybody to jump out from under the bed and start slashing people. Movies that take a long time to build up can be fine, but “Hide and Seek” does not reward its audience. The latter half of the film is gets progressively worse.
Ari Schlossberg’s screenplay does not leave a lot of guessing room when it comes to the inevitably big plot twist at the end. I had it nailed halfway though. Others may not catch it at all, but when it’s revealed to them I expect many eyes to roll. Thrillers like this too often resort to generic Hollywood climaxes, where either an explosion, gun, or something bang has to happen to complete the story. Top it off at the defining moment when a character exclaims, “Hide and Seek!” and you’ve got a failed concept in front of you.
Not to say the first half of the movie is much better. The first official “scare” occurs during the obligatory scene where a cat jumps out of the cupboard. Only this movie may have an excuse as to why cats end up in the weirdest places. Charlie must not be fond of cats.
The young and immensely talented Dakota Fanning has become a specialist in kidnap flicks (“Man on Fire,” “Taken,” “Trapped”) and is probably sought out for such roles because she delivers so convincingly.
It was only a matter of time before she was called to work in the horror genre and performs here at a level that is too good for this movie. The way her character stares ominously out of those telling round eyes is too impressive to pen into words. If this was a half decent movie I’d tell you to check it out for yourself. It will only be a matter of time before Fanning is appreciated in a better movie she deserves.
Some may be surprised that Robert DeNiro would take such a role but I wasn’t after seeing him in “Godsend.” I’m convinced he’ll do just about anything, and is willing to play a character that breaks all boundaries of plausibility.
When “Hide and Seek” rolls into town I suggest you stay in permanent hiding, and wait for something better to come along.