“The Sixth Sense” was an excellent horror film. Tautly written and rife with haunting scares, M. Night Shyamalan’s masterpiece invented a new formula for modern horror cinema: Concoct a deceptively simple plot laced with curious inconsistencies and bookended with an earth-shattering ending. However, when the recipe is carried to other endeavors, as it so often is, it inevitably fails. John Polson’s “Hide and Seek” falls prey to this widespread “Sixth Sense” epidemic and as a result is plagued throughout by stale mediocrity. But average would ultimately be a compliment for the horror/suspense film, considering its terribly ill-conceived, mindless ending.
The most unfortunate failure of “Hide and Seek” is its potential. In particular, the film’s beginning shows promise — while it is at times heavily cliched, it still manages to be genuinely scary. The movie’s doomed story commences in a plush Upper West Side apartment, where a loving mother plays a foreboding (and titular) game of hide-and-seek with her daughter Emily, played by the eerily precocious Dakota Fanning. After a trite “I-wuv-you-mommy” session, the mother retires to the master bedroom, a dark boudoir furnished with Robert DeNiro, who halfheartedly plays David.
“There are some things that simply cannot be fixed,” she sighs before going to take a bath. David, a psychologist, gives up on his partner’s pissed-off-housewife routine and succumbs to slumber. In his sleep, he experiences a jolting nightmare of garish gold balloons and screaming — reminiscent of a Rick James music video? — and awakes. After noticing the time (2:06 a.m., a coincidentally repeated number that never amounts to anything) he notices that his moping bride never returned to bed. He walks into the bathroom and, to absolutely no one’s surprise, she is floating in crimson bath water. While contrived, her suicide manages to appropriately devastate the wide-eyed Emily.
The little girl acquires a heavy load of psychological trauma, as well as a melodramatic palette of eye makeup, which causes her father to become concerned. He consults his sexy psychologist peer for help (the infamous Famke Janssen from “GoldenEye,” who seems neutered without lethal thighs) and is advised to stay in the city to work things out. However, DeNiro and the scheming writers of “Hide and Seek” elect to move to upstate New York, a decidedly creepier arena for a horror film.
After a somewhat lame title sequence with a smeared childlike font, the survivors arrive in a conventionally scary residence, a modern gothic abode enshrouded with skeletal gray trees. While the home is frightening enough, both the town policeman and realtor one-up the gothic windows with a skin-crawling appreciation for the little girl. “You have a beautiful daughter,” they hiss to David with a penetrating glare.
Unsettling occurrences ensue! Emily discovers a winding forest path that leads to a dark cave, where she happens to meet a new friend. While his daughter slowly ropes in the plot, David remains in the study and discovers a new entity as well: a gray smear on his hand (please pay attention to this, it ties in to the unfulfilling end). That night, Emily reveals to her father that she’s met a new friend, Charlie, a grown man who enjoys games and furtive interaction with her.
At first, David thinks Charlie is a purely fictional coping mechanism to assuage Emily’s misery. But after knives become displaced, large blood-red writing appears and the family cat is found floating in the bathtub, he becomes more concerned.
While most of the hair-raising antics of “Hide and Seek” are adequately scary, they mainly seem stolen from the horror canon, where they were of course more artfully and successfully used. The film’s plot is an amalgamation of “The Sixth Sense,” Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” David Lynch’s epic television series “Twin Peaks,” Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Gore Verbinski’s “The Ring.” All of the essential elements are present — the over-the-hill celebrity father, the moping wide-eyed child, dubiously imaginary friends, overcast East Coast weather and scraggly, bloody child’s drawings — yet little works.
At least, up until the unbearably idiotic finale, the film is decently scary. While DeNiro’s acting is somewhat paltry, young Dakota Fanning manages to carry the weight of the horror with a disconcerting stare and morbid one-liners. She is one of the few child actors in Hollywood who can deliver convincing and moving performances (Haley Joel Osment’s doppelganger, perhaps?).
The other facets of the film are satisfying, but hardly notable. The editing is tight and deliberate, and the film’s scary moments owe much of their success to the sharp cuts. But most of the other cinematic devices — music, dialogue, cinematography — are insipid and uninspired. While at times the acting (especially Fanning’s) manages to conquer the dialogue, the script ultimately fails. At one point the film features a crazed Robert DeNiro screaming “Marco, Polo!” in his living room. Ouch.
Perhaps director John Polson is a fan of the recent run of the horror flicks he awkwardly rips off and decided to employ their best elements as a means to pay tribute. But it’s more probable that his film is a botched effort at horror craftsmanship, to which Polson (the director of the dreadful “Swimfan”) is no stranger. While it manages to be scary at times and fun at others, “Hide and Seek” is a game that ultimately loses.