- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

“Hide and Seek,” the new psychological thriller starring Robert De Niro and the great young Dakota Fanning, gets so many things right, just not the thing that counts most: the Big Twist.

Despite the hype surrounding this otherwise chilling film’s final reel — a studio press release breathlessly announced that the end was shipping separately from the rest of the print to safeguard the surprise — the twist here isn’t very twisty at all. In fact, I think it was recycled from a trashy Rebecca De Mornay movie from the mid-‘90s. And it wasn’t all that great then, either.

What it does right: a claustrophobic sense of enclosure. First in a New York City apartment, then in a gorgeous lakeside home upstate, we’re right in the laps of David Calloway (Mr. De Niro) and his mysterious daughter, Emily (Dakota, in a Morticia Frump get-up — pasty face and darkened locks).

Director John Polson precisely dials up the split-second horror-show fillips; he makes every twist of doorknob and creak of floorboard mean something. The screenplay from first-timer Ari Schlossberg slips in bits of macabre humor that lend relief but stay on this side of spoof. And John Ottman’s score is by-the-book scary: all chaotic string swells, rattlesnake percussion and music-box heebie-jeebies.

Calloway, a well-to-do psychologist, shuttles traumatized Em to the country after his wife’s (Amy Irving) grisly suicide. There are marginal characters in and around the village, including a leery town sheriff (Dylan Baker), a scruffy real-estate agent and a neighbor couple still in raw grief over a child’s death. All seem sinister enough to arouse suspicion.

As everyone who’s watched a horror movie in the past 25 years knows, you can’t escape your troubles by moving upstate. Bad things happen in the city, sure. Predictable bad things. Up in the woods, as Calloway’s assistant (Famke Janssen) warns, all bets are off. There’s no safety net there. The nights are darker, and the people are weirder.

Emily’s peculiar behavior — anti-social moods, violent crayon fantasies and hostility to her father — only deepens from the remoteness. The presence in Dad’s life of a possible new girlfriend (long-lost Elisabeth Shue) makes things even worse. Calloway retreats into his study to jot down scholarly, highly rational diagnoses of Emily’s most acute fantasy: an imaginary friend “Charlie,” with whom she likes to play hide and seek.

Everything in Calloway’s training tells him “Charlie” is a coping mechanism. We know better. “Charlie” strikes precisely at 2:05 a.m. — don’t get too attached to the family pet in these flicks — and leaves his mammalian debris in the bathtub, the curtain and tiles around which Emily scrawls minatory messages to her father.

Dakota’s dark side is terrifically different from the sweetheart she has played in movies such as “I am Sam.” In relating to her, Mr. De Niro is patiently professorial at first and gradually works up the requisite hysteria.

There’s more than a few nods here to “The Shining”: the rural getaway, the ominous father-child relationship, the late rescue from a concerned out-of-towner. It’s splendidly spine-tingling until it reveals its cards. Then it deflates, and the third act trades on stock scary-movie slapstick.

If Mr. Schlossberg had just a little more imagination, he could’ve written a better “Hide and Seek.” Even so, the movie is worth coming out, coming out, wherever you are, to see.

**1/2

TITLE: “Hide and Seek”

RATING: R (Frightening sequences, violence)

CREDITS: Directed by John Polson. Produced by Barry Josephson. Written by Ari Schlossberg. Cinematography by Dariusz Wolski. Original music by John Ottman.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.hideandseekthemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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