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By Elias Savada | January 29, 2005

Twentieth Century-Fox, in an effort to bolster its lackluster slice of the 2005 box office pie (Elektra having failed to ignite anyone with its mid-January failure), recently issued perhaps the most audaciously inane press release in its 70-year history. “Studio will ship a motion picture without final reel,” heralded the missive from the press flacks at the studio, figuring some slow news outlets might pick up the item and drum a few more folks into their new release “Hide and Seek.” Fox was telling the press (and presumably a few others) that it was sending the new film starring Robert De Niro and child actress Dakota Fanning out to theaters in pieces. Reportedly done to “safeguard the critical final reel,” and to prevent spoilers, I want to spend a minute analyzing this statement after telling you: It doesn’t matter how the film was shipped. The film doesn’t work when you don’t spend the money on developing a good screenplay (by newcomer Ari Schlossberg).

The segmented release strategy is all smoke and mirrors. The press has seen the entire movie; some will spill the surprise within it, some won’t. Spoiler prevention? Ha! The day the press release was issued coincided with the actual press/promotional screening, presumably of the entire film. The cat was already out of the bag. Perhaps Fox was still tinkering with the final reel, or they had problems with the lab, or they truly were terribly afraid that someone would reveal the twist ending (shades of The Sixth Sense or The Village) that I DARE NOT DIVULGE. Of course, the critics in the crowd got a big laugh out of the notion that some final reels would get sent to the wrong theaters and frantic exhibitors would have to substitute the last ten minutes of some stale print stuck in the back of the projection booth, or, better yet, a slide asking patrons to return at a later date for the “exciting” conclusion, as if the experience mimicked an old Saturday matinee cliffhanger “to be continued” serial.

Ok, let’s talk about the film, which continues De Niro’s descent from raging bull to raging bullshit artist, following last year’s despicable horror outing Godsend. Hopefully it’s only a phase, especially in lieu of his success within his comic element in Meet the Fockers. Sure he’s better known as a serious actor, but all that intensity in a paper-thin script such as “Hide and Seek” is, no matter how slickly mounted by director John Polson (responsible for 2002’s lame thriller Swimfan), won’t endear this performance for his lifetime achievement reel. Polson pumps up his film’s soundtrack with John Ottman’s broodingly portentous score, and loves to focus on creepy elements, like David’s recurring nightmares that always seem to end at 2:06 in the morning, a plot device (the clock) used in White Noise, which had 2:30 A.M. wake-up calls. As for 10-year-old Dakota Fanning, bedecked in long black hair and a dreary complexion that makes her look like a castoff from the Addams Family, she’ll definitely bounce back with Steven Spielberg’s summer escapist rendition of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” The pair play David Callaway, a New York psychologist, and his traumatized daughter Emily, both suffering the emotional tragedy of the suicide of wife and mother Alison (Amy Irving). He doesn’t appear to be a very good doctor, failing to prescribe the right treatment to help his child’s worsening demeanor at the hands of Charlie, her “imaginary friend.” He generally ignores the suggestions of his only colleague and former student Katherine (Famke Janssen).

Ripping the girl away from her comfortable posh Central Park apartment and whatever friends she has in the city, David heads upstate to a lakeside house in the tiny hamlet of wintry Woodland. It’s a summertime community now populated by Sheriff Hafferty (Dylan Baker), neighbors Steven and Laura (who have their own hidden baggage), divorcée Elizabeth Young (Elisabeth Shue), her niece Amy, and a few other locals. And few survive as the film progresses through its creaky 101 minutes of amateur scare tactics. Despite Emily’s pale demeanor and vacant eyes, everyone comments, achingly so, how beautiful/cute she is. Maybe there’s something wrong with the water supply.

Sure, there’s a darkness to the film that will attract some fans. Polson offers up a few chilling scares, but the underwritten screenplay really does show off its weaknesses. Why isn’t Emily at school? What about David’s or his late wife’s extended family, nowhere to be seen. He doesn’t seem to be in contact with any other professionals, despite an accomplished career. Everything’s too isolated to feel real. They’ll need another game other than “Hide and Seek” to make it worth playing at the neighborhood multiplex.

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