Newly divorced single father John James (Kevin Costner) moves with his two children to an isolated house in South Carolina only for his daughter Louisa (Ivana Baquero) to start exhibiting unsettling behaviour, seemingly under the influence of a strange burial mound in their back yard. Increasingly eerie events: strange noises on the roof and in the woods, a missing cat, and Louisa sleepwalking clutching a straw doll no-one has seen before drive John to investigate and he uncovers the horrific fate of the house’s previous owners. It dawns on John that some ancient evil is lurking in the woods with designs on his daughter. John must get her and his son Sam (Gattlin Griffith) safely away from here, even though Louisa is fast changing from the daughter he once knew.
Strangely granted only a limited theatrical release before being shunted onto Blu-ray and DVD, it is likely few were aware The New Daughter was even out there. Which is strange given it not only features a robust turn from Kevin Costner but also marks the English language debut of two significant figures from Spanish fantastic cinema: Luis Berdejo, regular collaborator with Jaume Balagueró and co-writer of [REC] (2007) and its sequels, and the gifted Ivana Baquero, award-winning star of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Adapted from a short story by John Connolly, a crime writer who has penned the occasional horror story, the film is a fairly overt allegory about the changes wrought by puberty in adolescent girls. John in essence goes through an extreme variant on the experience of most fathers suddenly faced with a stroppy teenage daughter. Louisa grows increasingly surly and distant. She starts dressing provocatively, goes out after dark and takes against the local schoolteacher (Samantha Mathis) who strikes a friendship with John.
However, the assessment of adolescent girls as merely moody and manipulative comes across simplistic and overly harsh, plus the film fails to give viewers any sense of what Louisa was like before her encounter with the supernatural menace. Her relationship with John is strained from the get-go. Opening with images of the deceptively tranquil but sinister natural world, the film also echoes themes found in Lars von Trier’s controversial horror movie Antichrist (2010). Specifically the idea of nature as fundamentally evil and women being more sensitive to the natural order of things and the greater evil. This concept remains deeply problematic yet surprisingly prevalent throughout philosophy, although arguably reveals more about the neurotic attitudes of crusty old theologians and academics towards the fairer sex. Significantly John has a far more easygoing relationship with young Sam who, unlike his sister, immediately shuns the malefic influence of the mound.
Many of the horror films drawing such a connection between nature, evil and femininity depict the supernatural at least in part as some form of dark feminist liberation. Here however it is worth noting Louisa finds herself in thrall to primal male forces, pitching the plot closer in tone to underrated Dutch horror film The Johnsons (1992). It boils down to a father battling to safe his daughter from the monsters and functions quite ably on that level. Outstanding acting from Costner and Baquero ensure the characters remain compelling even when their actions are not especially admirable. As director, Berdejo does a fine job conveying a slowly mounting sense of dread via a succession of subtly creepy details before the climactic, literal descent into terror, even though he is on occasion guilty of mistaking inconsistency for ambiguity.