Sometimes adolescence is a nightmare.
A teenage melodrama imbued with Spanish-horror aesthetics, Down a Dark Hall looks a lot more accomplished than it is. Sepia-tinged imagery, gothic architecture and a historical perspective on all things ghostly are just a few of the familiar calling cards employed by director Rodrigo Cortés, here adapting Lois Duncan 1974 novel, a young adult classic whose supernatural bent and female coming-of-age narrative is a direct line to Vampire Academy and Twilight. Perhaps it’s no small coincidence that Twilight scribe Stephanie Meyer serves as one of the film’s producers; it shares the same embellished characterizations, trite tone and hammy storytelling as her mega-franchise. Still, the film is adequately macabre and stylish, and the overall lack of subtlety, embodied by a deliciously over-the-top and scene-stealing performance by Uma Thurman, makes for some accomplished camp.
Thurman, utilizing the kind of indeterminate accent and Cruella Deville-esque demeanor that instantly marks her a villain, plays Madame Duret, the headmistress of Blackwood Manor, a remote boarding school for troublesome and emotionally disturbed young women. Looking chic and poised in a variety of outfits designed by Zac Posen, she unabashedly chews the scenery and seems wholly immersed in her immaculate surroundings, like an extension of the gothic architecture itself. Under her watchful eye are five teenage girls with various screenwriter-friendly personality disorders. Kit (AnnaSophia Robb), our protagonist, is suffering from disturbing dreams about her deceased father and anger issues exteriorized by an increased proclivity for arson. At Blackwood, she and her classmates attend four classes: art, literature, math and music. Madame Duret teaches the first, while her handsome son Jules (Noah Silver) heads up the last, where Kit discovers a latent gift for the piano, which the filmmakers seem to equate with her blossoming feelings for her hunky instructor.
As fate would have it, the emergence of her hidden talent has less to do with first love and more to do with Blackwood Manor’s spooky secrets. It isn’t long before each of Kit’s classmates also demonstrate hitherto unrealized brilliance (one becomes a mathematics genius, one starts painting gorgeous landscapes), which coincides with increased bumps in the night and the weird vibes coming from the title passageway, where the girls are expressly forbid to tread. The explanation behind it all is weird and complicated and requires a suspension of disbelief that, even for a supernatural horror film, is difficult to muster—it has something to do with the afterlife and ESP and Emily Brontë—and the clumsy exposition renders certain stretches of the film into a dull slog. The film is never as interesting as when Thurman is on screen, and as her character becomes more intriguing and complex and the story embraces its metaphysical aims, she livens up the rest of the material, a rising tide lifting lots of rickety, boring and unmemorable boats.
Watching Down a Dark Hall, one may be inclined to dismiss it as too “girly.” Indeed, many aspects recall the YA fiction typically aimed at tween girls: The romantic chemistry between Kit and Jules is mushy and overdrawn; monogamous companionship is depicted as not only virtuous but also essential to happiness and prosperity; and most prominently, fatalistic import is placed on a choice Kit must make by the end of film, as if the sum total of life is distilled to a single decision and not an ongoing series of lived experiences. But the movie diverts from the usual narrative quandary, placing Kit on a more existential precipice than what you’d find in something like Twilight and, by using genre style effectively, embracing melodrama and avoiding self-seriousness. Most crucially, though, it honors the experience of the characters, and renders criticisms of “girliness” as lazy at best and sexist at worst. The film would have benefited from ditching these parameters altogether, but the overall point stands: sometimes adolescence is a nightmare.