Some people hate to say, "I told you so." But since I am not one of these people, let me take this time to say, "I told you so! I told you so!"
Two years ago, back when I started writing for Horror Express, I reviewed a so-called thriller named TRAPPED. I didn't think much of it, but I was impressed by a young talent named Dakota Fanning. She hadn't done much at that point and this was the first film I had actually seen her in. She blew all of her co-stars away, co-stars that included Hollywood favorites Kevin Bacon and Charlize Theron. A little while after seeing TRAPPED, I finally got around to seeing Fanning's other big movie, I AM SAM. Anyone who has seen that knows that she was matched perfectly with a cast in which everyone excelled. Sadly, while Fanning's fame continued to rise, she was also put in a number of pretty awful films. Such is the case for most young stars. Youth = dollars = patronizing ignorance. So, she did good work in bad films like UPTOWN GIRLS and THE CAT IN THE HAT. Thankfully, she rebounded in the thoroughly dark and tragic MAN ON FIRE and added more to the "kid in peril" role than any other revenge film in years. Now, she's front and center in HIDE AND SEEK, a new horror film where she is billed second only to the legendary Robert De Niro. And guess what? She's incredible.
This is another dark one, really dark right from the outset. Little Emily (Fanning) is tucked in at night by her loving mother (Amy Irving), whose love for her family cannot extinguish the emotional pain of depression. It's something I know well. So, when her husband David (Robert De Niro) wakes up to find her side of the bed empty, he is nonetheless shocked to find his wife in the tub with her wrists slit. As she weeps and cradles her in his arms, Emily is in the doorway, forever scarred after witnessing the whole thing.
From then on, Emily's name seems appropriate. There are many times when her unnaturally black hair and her straight-right-through-you glare evoked the image of Emily the Strange, currently on sale in your local Borders Bookstore. Emily doesn't smile or laugh like she used to. She stares at the wall, seems serious and detached, and is unable to shake the sadness of seeing her mother's body. David thinks that maybe by taking his daughter out of the city and away from the morbid reminders, he can repair his daughter's heart and her damaged psyche. They move to a sparsely populated rural area, filled with deep, penetrating woods. It's somewhere where he hopes she will be able to play and have a normal childhood.
But Emily has already found someone to play with. As she runs through the mysterious woods, she makes a friend named Charlie. We don't see Charlie and Emily doesn't give many straight answers about him. Her imaginary friend doesn't like to be talked about. David is worried, but as long as her imagination is being sparked and she is confiding in someone, maybe Charlie isn't such a bad thing after all. But then, things start to change. Charlie seems to develop an evermore dangerous hold on Emily. He's rude, he does things that seems unnecessarily cruel and he's always there influencing her. Soon, what starts out as a harmless imaginary friend turns into something to fear as awful things begin to happen and Emily gets knife-happy with her neighbor's dolls. Of course, the real question that permeates through the film is who is Charlie? Is he really imaginary? Is he a ghost? Is he one of the creepy neighbors? Or is David's kid really that messed up? It's a good premise and somehow the film manages to sustain the suspense before revealing all of its cards. I guess some people out there are disappointed in the ending. For myself, the third act is one of the most satisfying in a horror film of late. It's really good, scary stuff.
HIDE AND SEEK could have gone in a number of directions. It's a horror film where the word "horror" is not being dropped in too many advertisements. It's January, which is not a great month to be a cinephile, and lord knows De Niro didn't exactly impress with last year's horror outing, GODSEND.
I don't know if it was the lowered January expectations or the bitter taste of ALONE IN THE DARK which had ended just an hour before the start of this film. But I really liked HIDE AND SEEK. It's a solid psychological horror film that is proud to have the street cred to display both monikers.
De Niro has sadly been picking up paycheck after paycheck and hasn't been putting in the work on his recent films. This is the man who starred in my favorite film of all time, TAXI DRIVER. He's one of the most talented actors we've got. But just look at his recent output - ANALYZE THAT, SHOWTIME, 15 MINUTES, THE SCORE? He was sleepwalking through every single one of those stinkers and it showed. Thankfully, I'm not going to be counting HIDE AND SEEK on that list. De Niro is very credible as David Callaway. He is quiet and reserved and is genuinely horrified as events begin to spin out of control. He is someone who is obviously acting in the best interests of his daughter, but even his extensive training (his character is a psychologist) cannot help her. I will not go so far as to say that De Niro is back in full force. It's going to take a lot more for the big guy to pull himself back up, But HIDE AND SEEK at least reminds us a little of why we love him in the first place.
As I have mentioned, Dakota Fanning is brilliant as Emily. Let's just say this as a service to all horror fans - she does us proud. She is scary as hell with a stare that would send a chill up your spine. There has been some controversy because of the terror she is surrounded with in this film, but trust me she seems more than up to it.
Her speech is mature and intelligent yet still firmly in the realm of a child, so it all feels genuine. We have had a lot of creepy kids in the genre recently, but Fanning has blown them all away. The other ones just never seemed real, either emulating Haley Joel Osment from THE SIXTH SENSE or Patty McCormick from THE BAD SEED, as if all performances should be modeled on just those two. GODSEND's nasty-looking Cameron Bright always seemed like a brat, so it was no big shock when the bodies began piling up. The overrated overacting of David Dorfman in THE RING made it hard to sympathize with his character. How could you when he seemed barely human? Fanning on the other hand has crafted a role (with the help of screenwriter Ari Schlossberg) that is both frightening yet human. Even when we suspect Emily might be up to no good, we never lose our trust or appreciation of her. After all, she has been given a legitimate reason to be a bit off. She conveys a vulnerability and sorrow that tugs at your heartstrings while giving rise to your goosebumps.
Also, she's just a better actress. She was good in TRAPPED, but she has just gotten continuously better since then. The quality of her performances would be noteworthy of an actress of any age. But considering she isn't even in her teens yet, Fanning as demonstrated an almost superhuman talent so far. There are two downward paths Fanning's career could take. The first would be that she continues to do good work until she leaves for school and comes back to find the industry has forgotten her. The second is much worse, where she could simply burn out. She does have five other films in various stages of production, including Speilberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS film. Let's hope she doesn't get overwhelmed.
Together, De Niro and Fanning have great chemistry. Admittedly, in a film like this the creepy kid is always going to have the best material. Fanning doesn't overdo it and De Niro has at last put some of his talent behind his character. Hence, the two are matched very well. They are convincing as the father and daughter who find themselves going down different paths.
The whole cast is talented, and the film finds something to do with some, but not all of them. It's the one spot where the film really could have used some tightening. HIDE AND SEEK is one of those films filled with actors who by rights should be big, but find themselves in incidental roles instead. This includes Hal Hartley alum Robert John Burke, unrecognizable as a grieving father and Melissa Leo as his wife. Both add to the suspense considerably. Somewhat lost in the bunch is Oscar-nominated actress Elizabeth Shue (LEAVING LAS VEGAS), whose character is important but under-developed. It's the type of role where the film should not necessarily be stopped for her, but she should be integrated better into the storyline. Likewise, Famke Janssen (X-MEN) has an important role, but seems to spend most of it on the phone.
John Polson's direction has its ups and downs. He surely is developing into a fine filmmaker and you'd never guess this is the same guy who helmed the teen schlock SWIMFAN. Polson, who is currently filming a loose remake of STRAW DOGS, seems at best when dealing with his actors. A longtime actor himself, he has pulled some fine performances from the entire cast. Likewise, the film does well with it's most subtle moments. A glance across a table, a butterfly flapping its wings. These are the things Polson does very well. He also has a penchant for some good scares. Finding home in a more mature film than SWIMFAN, he knows how to creep the viewer out. The main problem seems to come in the scenes in between all the suspense. If a scene is meant mainly for exposition or seems to not offer some of those subtle touches, they play very flat. The film never gets boring, however there are moments that are somewhat uninvolving. Furthermore, the whole film might have benefitted from a five minute trim.
HIDE AND SEEK is a refreshingly smart and spooky horror film whose fine cast helps elevate it enough to be well worth your while. A good, memorable horror film in January. Who says these things are imaginary?