When Kit Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb) was a little girl, she woke up one night around Christmas and something compelled her to go downstairs - was there someone there? She went even further, out into the snow-covered street where she saw her father walking away for reasons she could not grasp, and the following morning she learned he had passed away. Now she is a troubled teenager who cannot get used to her mother (Kirsty Mitchell) remarrying and is causing all sorts of bother at school, including being accused of arson, so it has been decided to send her to a special school in a mansion house in the countryside where she will receive intense treatment...
A little too intense in what played out as a version of those girls' comics tales where your problem-suffering heroine would end up at some creepy old school and have to contend with an escalating number of issues that wind up with mortal danger. It's the sort of thing that would appear in the pages of Mandy or Misty, maybe even Bunty, if it had been a British film, but it was actually a Spanish-American co-production, therefore it was drawn from a young adult novel, as they call them now, but didn't back when Lois Duncan penned the source in 1974, when they were simply teen girls' fiction to go along with the Judy Blume paperbacks in the local bookshop.
Duncan would be best known in the film world for the thriller I Know What You Did Last Summer, a movie she disliked for what it did to her fiction (added murders, basically), but you imagine she might have liked this rather better, it was dedicated to her, for instance, and had a far more respectful approach to the material. Maybe too respectful, as while this grew fairly intense for the characters, the audience may not have been quite so caught up in the plot, partly because of director Rodrigo Cortés and his choice to shoot too much of this in a crepuscular gloom that made scenes less suspenseful and more, well, difficult to make out what on Earth was going on.
If you bought into the notion that creeping around in the dark equalled instant atmosphere, then there were compensations, mostly thanks to the cast who were up for a challenge, and turning from unsympathetic to someone worth investing in was what the younger, female performers were given to try. Robb's Kit was your movie-typical bratty teenager at the beginning, so naturally we just had to understand where she was coming from as far as her social maladjustment went (her mother was particularly tolerant of her bad behaviour but didn’t excuse it), and once she had shown up at the mansion, after a spooky night practically alone there but for some coldly interested staff, the others arrived. Not very many others, she was surprised to see, as there are not even ten of them, never mind a whole assembly.
The others girls have their problems too, but after a while you twig why they are there, largely ahead of them as headmistress Uma Thurman (putting on a French accent, apparently to match the actor playing her son, Noah Silver, who was French himself) puts them to work in specialised classes that each of them excel at individually in one subject, but not together. Every so often you get someone claiming to be psychic who can channel the post-death work of an artist, be they a painter or a composer of music, you know the kind, "Here's the latest by John Lennon", "This is what Van Gogh asked me to paint", and so forth, and that appeared to be Duncan's impetus for writing her novel. Of course, all this playing around with the spirits, which is not the excuses for, er, "eccentrics" to demonstrate their skills of pastiche, is taken seriously in Down a Dark Hall, resulting in what amounted to the film massacring most of the characters with blithe abandon. It had some nice ideas, decent performances, but never really got to grips with the horror. Music by Victor Reyes.