Potential viewers should keep three things in mind before deciding to see Hide and Seek: 1) The movie’s not nearly as funny as director John Polson’s last film, Swimfan; 2) It does have several “Boo!” moments that effectively make the audience jump; and 3) Compared to the week’s other horrific offering, Alone in the Dark, this film is Oscar-caliber material.
Those considerations to one side, the movie’s basically another episode of Lifestyles of the Upscale and Haunted that features the latest example of Robert DeNiro in full “Where’s my paycheck?” mode. I’m sorry, but it seems most unlikely that DeNiro decided to make this film because he was impressed by the script, or that he was just dying for the chance to work with the director of Swimfan.
Dakota Fanning’s performance is the best part of the movie. (The film’s trailer is somewhat misleading about her character, showing her in a pintsized Goth-girl outfit that she only dons in one scene. And there the fashion choice is the result of dressing up in her mother’s old formal wear — not a desire to look like a refugee from a Charles Addams cartoon.) The odd thing is that Fanning is much more vulnerable and far less creepy here than she is in non-horror movies like Uptown Girls. If Hide and Seek proves nothing else, it demonstrates that she has more range and humanity than has been evidenced in her earlier efforts.
The story line is ho-hum in the extreme. A few days after New Year’s Eve, psychologist David Callaway’s (DeNiro) wife, Alison (Amy Irving), calmly gets up in the night and slits her wrists in the bath. The suicide traumatizes daughter Emily (Fanning), so Dad decides to move her out of Manhattan to an old house in a little town in upstate New York.
Of course, this is one of those small towns, the kind that exist solely for the purposes of a plot. The ingredients include: isolation, a nosy sheriff, a set of peculiar neighbors with a secret, an attractive and pliable young divorcee, etc. (One wonders, though, where the maid is. There must be one who comes in at least once a day to keep Maison Callaway House and Garden photo-shoot neat.) Who in his right mind would think this would be just the place to take a traumatized 10-year-old? For that matter, who in his right mind would spend most of his time isolated in his study, listening to music through headphones and scribbling in a journal while his disturbed child wanders through the huge old house?
Ah, but that’s part of the plot, which quickly becomes a question of which Callaway is mentally sound. Emily may be withdrawn, and sure, she’s conjured up a (presumably) imaginary friend named Charlie who has an alarming propensity to restage bathtub suicides and drown the family pet. But David has his own problems: He keeps waking up at 2:06 a.m. (the time he discovered his wife in the tub) after suffering nightmares of a New Year’s Eve party (which look like outtakes from Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut mode) — just in time to discover whatever fresh hell awaits him in the bathroom.
Hide and Seek is efficiently done, but perhaps too much so, in that the film adds no detail that doesn’t serve its purpose. And the movie’s very obvious about this approach. For example, early on, the family cat is so brazenly shoved in our faces that we know from the onset that ol’ tabby isn’t long for this world. The fate of the young divorcee (a wasted Elisabeth Shue) is likewise a foregone conclusion. And the surprise ending simply isn’t. To top it off, the elaborate, nightmarish flashbacks to the party are just too much like — and too clearly modeled on — the scenes of New Year’s Eve in Times Square in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart to lead anywhere but where they do.
Director Polson does a better job with this material than he did with Swimfan, but then no one could have done much with that script. Still, the simple ability to make viewers jump with a shock cut or a sudden blast of music — Polson’s stylistic signature — doesn’t qualify as a major artistic accomplishment. He is, however, capable of linking the narrative together and marshalling his actors through their scenes without making them appear ridiculous — well, at least up to the point where levelheaded shrink Katherine (Famke Janssen) gets her mitts on a gun and becomes terminally stupid (a condition that appears to afflict all female characters in movie thrillers).
Overall, Hide and Seek is too bland and familiar to make any significant impact, but not so bad that viewing it could shave off IQ points. Rated R for frightening images and violence.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke