It seems that about 90 percent of child roles go to Dakota Fanning these days, while approximately 95 percent of horror movies rely on creepy-looking kids to deliver their chill factor. So it was really just a mathematical inevitability that eventually Hollywood cutie-pie Fanning would go goth and leave behind her squeaky-clean image to play a shell-shocked, dark-haired demon.
Yet right off the bat there’s something dishonest about the way that Hide and Seek uses nine-year-old Emily Callaway (Fanning) as its lone source of foreboding. After her mom (Amy Irving) commits suicide, Emily’s psychologist father David (Robert DeNiro) whisks her off to a country house in upstate New York so the girl won’t be haunted by memories of her mother lying in a bathtub full of blood. Soon Emily appears to go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, giving nothing but cold, blank stares to the locals and telling her father that the only person she needs is an imaginary friend named Charlie who she says doesn’t like her dad very much.
Emily is simultaneously used as an emblem of childhood trauma and a startling symbol of deteriorating sanity, yet we’re never meant to feel any sympathy for this poor girl. Instead, Ari Scholossberg’s script, full of the usual red herrings and predictable attempts to scare us out of our seats, treats her as such the enemy that it doesn’t matter whether or not Emily turns out to be the one behind the mysterious messages (like “You let her die”) scrawled on the bathroom wall in crayon. By the time you find out who killed her cat and who Charlie really is, you’d rather see Emily institutionalized than anything else. And Fanning is a fine young actress, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to believe her, decked out in all-black garb that wouldn’t be out of place at Ozzfest, threatening her dad’s new friend (Elizabeth Shue) that she’ll end up like her mother.
Like most recent thrillers, Hide and Seek relies on a climactic twist to deliver its psychological payoff, but here the major revelation deprives the film of any intellectual insight, not to mention its already weak grasp on reality. Rather than allowing its characters’ pain to force them down a terrifying tunnel of fear and loss, the movie falls back on the notion that it is more important to build up to one surprise than floor the audience with any logical statement about the pain of losing a parent or a spouse. In fact, the movie is told in such a deceptive fashion that you later realize that all its secrets could have been avoided with one simple conversation early on.
It also doesn’t seem to exist in a world where mental turmoil is even treated in any rational way. David hardly reacts after Emily’s outbursts, as if it’s not such a big deal for nine-year-olds to be threatening dinner guests and murdering felines. In a film that has only this emotionally ravaged girl to provide its scares, it’s hard to be too afraid of her when her dad reacts with such restraint to her violent tendencies.
Director John Polson (Swimfan) occasionally captures a palpable tone of dread so you might possibly be apprehensive to discover what’s hiding in the Callaway’s closet. But he generally relies on images that just seem swiped from other horror movies, like dolls with smudged faces, pictures with one person ripped out, or the oh-so-disturbing drawings of a troubled child.
Amid the score full of howling wind and screeching strings that could have been generated by a horror movie computer program, you might be able to hear DeNiro saying “Come out, come out, wherever you are” to a career that hasn’t delivered a great film since 1995’s Heat. And as far as horror movies go, Hide and Seek is pure child’s play.