Hide and Seek
Director : John Polson
Screenplay : Ari Schlossberg
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Robert De Niro (David Callaway), Dakota Fanning (Emily Callaway), Famke Janssen (Katherine), Elisabeth Shue (Elizabeth), Amy Irving (Alison Callaway), Dylan Baker (Sheriff Hafferty), Melissa Leo (Laura), Robert John Burke (Steven)
Right up until the last 15 minutes, Hide and Seek is an efficient, effective thriller, building mood and atmosphere while goosing the audience with a mysterious identity that may or may not be supernatural. To tell you there's a big "twist" regarding said identity isn't much of a spoiler since it becomes fairly obvious early that there's going to be one, and unfortunately the twist is the beginning of the film's rapid descent into silly mediocrity.
When looking back at the great twist endings of modern horror thrillers -- the revelations in Psycho (1960) or The Sixth Sense (1999) -- one is immediately struck by the fact that they ended almost immediately after revealing the twist, thus allowing the film to go out on a high note (well, Psycho did have the near-parodic psychological explanation scene at the end, but that's Hitchcock for you). Hide and Seek, on the other hand, throws the twist out there and then uses it as a springboard for the final 15 minutes, which don't work at all. Not only is the majority of this time given over to rote stalking scenes and bad acting, but the twist itself is a real cheat. If you go back and watch the film again, it doesn't hold up knowing what you know by the end.
In another of his increasingly mainstream performances, Robert De Niro plays David Callaway, a New York psychologist whose troubled wife (Amy Irving) kills herself in the bathtub one night. If that weren't bad enough, David's precocious 10-year-old daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning) witnesses Dad pulling Mom out of the bloody bathwater and sinks into a depressive state. Strangely silent, eyes wide and sunken, her dark hair contrasting fiercely with her doll-white skin, Emily begins to look like she's auditioning for the next Addams Family sequel.
In an effort to help his disturbed daughter, David decides to move them out to the country for a change of scenery. He conveniently rents the largest, most Victorian-looking house in the small community, thus guaranteeing plenty of space for cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Pirates of the Carribbean) to suggest the unseen and unimaginable. Almost immediately after moving in, Emily finds a monstrous, mouth-like cave in the woods behind the house, and soon thereafter she begins telling David that she's met a new friend named Charlie. As a psychologist, David assumes that Charlie is a figment of Emily's imagination, a psychological projection she's using to work through her fear, anger, and frustrations following her mother's suicide.
Yet, there are small clues here and there that maybe Charlie is an actual physical presence. Most notable is a scene in which David finds Emily's bedroom window open, and he knows that she couldn't have opened it because it was so firmly stuck earlier than even he couldn't get it to budge. His suspicion begins to fall on his neighbors, a troubled couple (Melissa Leo and Robert John Burke) who recently lost a daughter and might not have made it through that loss with all their marbles. Just as plausible is the notion that Charlie is some kind of supernatural force, as there are all kinds of suggestions that the house might be haunted (the discovery of a dank basement with a bed and a small television hint of rural captivity). The supernatural dimension is heightened by screenwriter Ari Schlossberg's borrowing of tropes from The Amityville Horror (1979), specifically the idea of a ghost masquerading as an unseen childhood friend and the fact that something bad always happens at 2:06 in the morning, the time when David found his wife in the tub.
Director John Polson (Swimfan) does an admirable job of maintaining intrigue and suspense for most of the film, right up until the plot undermines all his efforts. A lot of the set-up is standard fare, but it's done with enough style and grace that it's not hard to overlook the "seen it before" factor.
De Niro's fierceness is largely neutered by his collection of Mr. Rogers sweaters, but when push comes to shove he makes David into a ruthless protector, someone who is not about to let his only daughter be harmed. As for Dakota Fanning, it was only a matter of time before her precious cuteness in movies like I Am Sam (2001) and Uptown Girls (2003) was finally given a nasty twist. She's a great child actor, and it's testament to her abilities that Emily remains sympathetic despite her increasingly bizarre and selfish behavior. She goes from victim to menace to victim and back to menace again, which gives the admittedly hokey final shot, which completely undercuts an otherwise sunny ending, an extra juicy kick of maliciousness.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright ©2004 20th Century Fox