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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Down a Dark Hall is based on the classic gothic YA novel by Lois Duncan. The story follows Kit (AnnaSophia Robb), one of five students at the mysterious Blackwood Boarding School that's run by headmistress Madame Duret (Uma Thurman). The book isn't as widely read now as it was a few decades ago, but the movie should still appeal to fans of scary stories and boarding school tales. Expect moderate supernatural horror, including a couple of jump-worthy scares, several deaths -- via suicide, fire, stabbing, building collapse, and more -- and some strong language (mostly "s--t" and "bitch"). Romance is limited to a near-kiss and flirting, so it's really the supernatural violence that's most disturbing. Messages center on teamwork and honesty.
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What's the story?
DOWN A DARK HALL, based on Lois Duncan's classic 1974 YA novel, follows five teens sent to a boarding school for troubled girls. After several suspensions and disciplinary charges (including arson), Kit Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb) is offered a chance to attend the Blackwood Academy, run by Madame Duret (Uma Thurman). Kit is surprised to find out that only four other young women (Veronica, Izzy, Ashley, and Sierra) are enrolled at the school, which is housed in a large, dark mansion with a restricted wing the students aren't allowed to enter. The young women are taught arithmetic, literature, art, and music. The music teacher, who takes an interest in Kit, is Madame Duret's handsome 20-something son, Jules (Noah Silver). One by one, each girl except Veronica (Victoria Moroles) begins to show an aptitude for a particular subject, sometimes even in their sleep. Kit can play entire concertos on the piano, whereas before she could barely play scales. Izzy (Isabelle Fuhrman) can solve complicated calculus problems, Sierra (Rosie Day) can paint like a 19th-century master, and Ashley (Taylor Russell) can write epic poems overnight. But there's something creepy going on at Blackwood, and Kit begins to suspect that there are sinister reasons she and her classmates are exhibiting extraordinary abilities.
Is it any good?
This supernatural thriller is just campy and creepy enough to entertain young teens who are interested in ghost stories. Generation X and older viewers who remember Duncan's book may wonder how the writers managed to maintain the isolation the girls felt when the setting was updated to current (read: phone/internet-heavy) times, but Madame Duret keeps phones under lock and key and requires the girls do old-school library research without computers. Robb and the other young actresses, particularly Moroles as angry Veronica, Russell as Ashley the suddenly unstoppable poet, and Fuhrman as blossoming mathematician Izzy, do a fine job conveying how off-putting the school's eerieness is -- especially in the dark.
The French-accented Thurman is delightfully campy, as is Rebecca Front as Blackwood's housekeeper/cook/disciplinarian Mrs. Olonsky. The frights are surprisingly real in a few scenes, even though the ending is somewhat more tragic -- and less satisfying -- than audiences may be used to in the genre. Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés has a knack for depicting the macabre, and while the subject matter of ghoulish happenings in ominous old estates isn't original, it's still the sort of fright that teens will enjoy experiencing together.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the violence in Down a Dark Hall. How does it compare to other scary/horror movies you've seen? Does the fact that much of the violence is aimed at teen girls affect the impact of the violence?
What's the appeal of gothic horror movies? Why do people like to be scared? Were you surprised by how many people die in the movie?
The original book was published in 1974, before cell phones and the internet made constant communication between teens and parents easy. Do you think the story still works decades later? Does the movie make you want to read the book?
- In theaters: August 17, 2018
- On DVD or streaming: October 16, 2018
- Cast: AnnaSophia Robb, Uma Thurman, Isabelle Fuhrman
- Director: Rodrigo Cortes
- Studio: Lionsgate
- Genre: Fantasy
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Book Characters
- Character Strengths: Teamwork
- Run time: 96 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: mature thematic content, terror and violence, some language including a sexual reference, and smoking
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