It’s been a long time since I’ve seen something as shocking as Down a Dark Hall, a horror movie starring Uma Thurman and that girl from Soul Surfer (AnnaSophia Robb), directed by Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortez.
The movie follows Kit Gordon (Robb), a difficult young girl who’s sent to a school for angsty teenagers, led by French mistress Madam Duret (Uma Thurman). Alongside four other girls (one of them played by the fantastic Rosie Day from The Seasoning House), they’re taught various arts and pushed to excel in one of them at least. As their tasks progressively possess Kit and her schoolmates, an unsettling truth emerges on the surface.
When I said Down a Dark Hall was shocking, I meant that in a very specific way that’s not easy to explain. From the get-go, this film looks really ambitious, relying on noticeable and frenetic editing, combined with a camera-work that’s very in-your-face. While the conscious effort put into this is admirable, it also makes the cinematography seem all over the place. In other words, the best technical features are those that the average viewer doesn’t notice, due to subtlety: when everybody can tell that a sequence has been fast-cut, when the steady-cam is obvious, when the zoom-in/zoom-out are violently forced to the audience, everything in the movie becomes annoying, even if story and characters are good.
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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Are those two aspects good in Down a Dark Hall? In my opinion, the story is extremely intriguing at the beginning. The first act, very subtle and somewhat conventional, features a rather effective build-up: Madam Duret’s school serves as a great location where the events take place and the sombre atmosphere drags you into the story. However, halfway through the movie, everything goes completely bonkers! There are certain horror flicks – especially the gory and surreal Italian movies from the 70s and 80s, or the Asian films of the late 70s and late 90s – where this works, but in a film like Down the Dark Hall, which is subtle and gloomy for 40 minutes, it really seems out of place.
This is probably my main issue with this film: it appears that the three writers of the script gave up halfway through and, like bored kids, stopped doing their homework and started scraping the papers. The second half of Down a Dark Hall is unbelievably disjointed and nonsensical: we get Uma Thurman spitting out exposition after exposition to explain what’s going on, since the plot becomes overly convoluted.
Yet, the characters are cartoonish and over-the-top as well. At some point in the movie, the five teenagers did their best impression of Negasonic Teenage Warhead from Deadpool! They were depicted as these super angsty teens who just complain about everything. Uma Thurman, forced to speak with a ridiculous French accent, is laughable in the movie as well. This is really a shame, since she could make for a great, creepy character in a horror film.
Speaking of over-the-top and bloated features, the overreliance on cheap CGI in this movie is unbelievable. Some sequences look like they were made in the early 2000s, by a bunch of amateurs experimenting with a newly discovered toy. It bugs me that this movie got a theatrical release in my own country, with screenings in English, whereas Hereditary didn’t get the same treatment. It’s a fucking joke!
However, there are some aspects to appreciate and enjoy about Down a Dark Hall. Had it not been for the obnoxious and jumpy editing, the first act and part of the second one would have been really great. As I said before, the atmosphere created in the first 40 minutes of the movie is rather unsettling and doesn’t rely on silly jump-scares.
Also, every scene involving Rosie Day’s character (who’s criminally underutilised) is very creepy, due to the actress’ ability to convey terror and despair. Giving so much screen time to the other girls at her expenses was really an amateur mistake.
The score is also not bad at all: it was almost entirely composed for this film and you can tell a lot of effort was put into making it less formulaic and obvious as possible.
To bridge back to the first paragraph of my review, Down a Dark Hall is shocking because, apart from Devil’s Gate, it’s the only horror movie I’ve seen in 2018 that has such an abrupt switch in tone: besides the intriguing premise, the first part of the film is at least worth a 7.5 or 8 out of 10, but then everything truly goes in the shitter. This movie could’ve been a great, dark and gloomy fairy tale, but instead is a bloated and confusing mess, ruined – among other things – by the over-the-top acting, CGI and cinematography.
Down a Dark Hall 4/10