On female sacrifice, ends justifying means, Gothic shortcuts, and Uma Thurman's added relevance to Down a Dark Hall
Down a Dark Hall Lionsgate Premiere
Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Screenplay: Michael Goldbach and Chris Sparling, based on the novel by Lois Duncan
Starring: AnnaSophia Robb, Victoria Moroles, Uma Thurman, Noah Silver, Isabelle Fuhrman, Taylor Russell, Rosie Day, Rebecca Front and Pip Torrens
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 36 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
Uma Thurman has told us this story already. Earlier this year in The New York Times, the actress recounted an incident from the set of Kill Bill, in which she (an inexperienced driver at the time) was pushed to do her own driving in a stunt gone wrong, suffering severe injuries while operating an unsafe vehicle. This was all was kept largely under wraps at the time. That the incident fractured her (since-repaired) relationship to writer/director Quentin Tarantino, and that the repercussions from those injuries linger to this day, was news to most of us until the publication of the Times piece. The movie(s) going on to become a triumph - a modern classic from a modern master - was tacit justification for the damage done to its star and the irresponsible decisions that led to it.
And now Thurman stars in Down a Dark Hall, a film explicitly about the sacrifice of female bodies for the sake of art. Based on Lois Duncan's 1974 novel, it takes place at a boarding school - somewhere in a mountainy countryside far away from civilization - and involves a group of five "troubled" teenage girls sent there presumably for rehabilitative discipline, but in fact for a much more sinister purpose. Young women are routinely the sacrificial lambs of horror and Hall is implicitly aware of that; its version is notable for the "high-minded" ideals by which the sacrifice is enacted and rationalized. A calculated choice has been made to use these girls for a specific purpose that has ostensibly little to do with them; it is a dehumanizing indifference. This isn't exactly Martyrs - it has no desire to dip into that degree of physical/spiritual agony - but there's enough overlap that it's easy to be reminded of it.
Thurman plays the headmistress of Blackwood Boarding School, Madame Duret, who welcomes her five new pupils to the school grounds with all the warmth of an imperial vampire. Speaking in an accent that makes you assume a twin brother played by Udo Kier is going to appear from around the corner at any moment, Madame Duret informs the girls that they will be focusing on the arts - both in study and in practice. None of them appear to have any particular inclination toward painting or writing or music, yet once they're knee-deep in Blackwood's classroom methods and habits, their capabilities start to reveal themselves. One has a talent for prose, another for painting.
But our attention is primarily on Kit (AnnaSophia Robb, who has now been playing teenage roles for approximately 90 years), who gets shipped off to Blackwood as an alternative to jail time. Arson, it seems, is her primary area of aptitude. At least until she sits down at the piano and, after a bit of tutelage from her instructor (and Madame Duret's son) Jules (Noah Silver), is suddenly able to perform, and even compose, professional-level concertos. Kit is instantly suspicious - of both herself (and her newfound musical prowess) and her classmates, who begin to spend more and more time locked in their rooms (skipping meals and social interaction) obsessively cultivating their artistic talents. Have they simply found their calling? Have Madame Duret and the Blackwood Method discovered a class of prodigies?
The answers to those questions are where they always are. Early in the film, as Kit is doing a bit of exploring inside the school's expansive interiors, she happens upon a low-lit, dusty old wing, its doors resolutely locked. "That part of the building is off-limits," Madame Duret warns, with a mellow smile.
And so it's only a matter of time before we wind up behind those off-limits doors, and the mystery of Blackwood Boarding School begins to unravel itself.
Shot in director Rodrigo Cortés' native Spain in late 2016, Down a Dark Hall has the locations and production design of a great Gothic thriller, and in fits and starts it even feels like one. But unlike its protagonist, who tries to explore every corner of her new home and gets in deep trouble doing so, the film doesn't have the curiosity to explore its premise with the thoroughness that might accentuate the diabolical logic of the school's secret purpose. (Not to mention, the more reliant the movie becomes on its shaky special effects, the more its old-fashioned Gothic sensibility evaporates.)
With the way Cortés establishes Blackwood's strange power and the mystery surrounding it - and then barrels toward explanations and resolutions - the girls themselves are what ultimately get lost in the shuffle. We never lose track of Kit, and there's some development of Veronica (Victoria Moroles), the most sullen and least social of the group, and the one who seems most resistant to the the instructors' methods. But aside from the early introductory scenes, the other three girls rarely come across as anything but glorified extras.
In a way, this makes our protagonist an outsider rather than a part of the group being exploited and victimized. She plays amateur gumshoe while her classmates become overwhelmed by the school's controlling influences. Which would be fine if that were treated as personal tragedy instead of plot point. When the credits rolled I could barely remember what the rest of the girls at Blackwood looked like, let alone what their names were. The movie doesn't particularly care. With Kit as the notable exception - her story finds a fitting, even poetic, closure - Cortés creates a distance between the premise as a narrative conceit and the premise as an experience endured by his characters. His approach is easy. He has a set of villains with a nasty motive, and he has a heroine that those villains eventually have to contend with. As for the rest of the girls, they're not characters at all, but simply the collateral damage that make the story possible.