‘Hide And Seek’ Scary, But Seen It, By Kurt Loder

The fact that Robert De Niro is in this movie is one of its more impenetrable mysteries.

“Hide and Seek”: He Knows You’re Alone

“Hide and Seek” is a scary movie all right — it jolts you, and it creeps you out. And if you can make it to a theater before somebody blows its third-act plot twist for you (good luck), you may feel a nicely building thrill of terror. The effects are familiar — we’ve experienced them all before — but the director, John Polson, deploys them with skill and a certain amount of restraint. Unfortunately, the picture’s a little slow, and it’s grim, and its tricky construction is shaky in retrospect. There are some trite fright-flick sucker punches, too, so you walk away afterward feeling worked-over, pummeled, and a little bummed.

David Calloway (Robert De Niro) is a Manhattan psychologist whose marriage is crumbling. When his troubled wife comes to a bloody end, in a scene witnessed by their young daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning), David decides, for the traumatized girl’s sake, to move with her out of the city and into a big gloomy old house in a remote small town upstate. (Of course!) It soon becomes apparent that there’s something in the water up here: a large school of red herrings. The real-estate agent who rents David the house is … kind of weird. So is the local sheriff (Dylan Baker). And the husband and wife next door are ominously odd. They had a little girl, too, it seems — Emily’s age, in fact. But she died. Recently.

Emily does not thrive in this gloomy isolation. With her lank black hair and strange blue searchlight eyes, she seems to be turning borderline-demonic. Her only companion is a favorite doll — until one day she tells her father she’s met a friend. “He told me to call him Charlie,” she says, with a spooky look on her face. Bad things begin to happen, followed by much worse things, and Emily blames them all on Charlie. But Charlie doesn’t exist, David argues. Don’t say that, Emily warns: “You’ll make him mad.”

So true, as we soon see. When David starts getting involved with a bright, sexy young divorcee (Elisabeth Shue), Charlie loses it. (Sexiness is a death sentence in movies like this.) And by the time a concerned child psychologist named Katherine (Famke Janssen) arrives on the scene from Manhattan, Charlie has come out into the open.

“Hide and Seek” is ambitious, not to say shameless, in its appropriation of incidents and atmosphere from earlier horror movies. The devil-child aspect of the film recalls the “Omen” pictures. The child-stalking elements hark back to “The Night of the Hunter.” Some of the queasy sexual overtones (as when Emily tells her father that Charlie says he could have satisfied her mother better than David did) are unpleasant in a plainly “Exorcist” sort of way. And there’s “Psycho” all over the place: flung-back shower curtains, a flashing butcher knife, a sinister staircase, a doomed flatfoot. (At one point someone actually says, “He’s harmless, really. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”) And if you thought you would never again find yourself sitting in a theater thinking, “No, no, don’t go down into that dark, dripping basement,” you were wrong.

The picture doesn’t have much in the way of psychological resonance — you’re not likely to go home afterwards and ponder its deeper meaning. But it does have little Dakota Fanning, who, at the age of 10, is already an eerily accomplished actress, with a precocious emotional range. And it has composer John Ottman (“X2″), who boldly resists the electro temptation and provides instead a richly orchestrated but not overwrought score that glimmers with Fanning’s otherworldly vocal embellishments. Unfortunately, it also has Robert De Niro giving one of the emptier performances of his latter-day career. De Niro mutters his way through the film; his character doesn’t evolve, he just shuffles into another room. The dimensionless David is beneath De Niro’s talent, and the fact that he took the job of portraying him is one of the movie’s more impenetrable mysteries.

You might not see the picture’s trick turnaround coming from a mile off (director Polson strives mightily to divert you with ripping jump cuts and sudden loud sounds), but you’ll certainly hear the lumbering drag of its footsteps before it actually stumbles into sight. And the plot comes to a logical conclusion before the movie itself does — the film crashes on too long before collapsing into one last little zinger. Your brain disengages 20 minutes before your body gets up out of its seat, and the whole experience grows hazy and indistinct before you even hit the street.