A STUDIO horror movie knows to run screaming from originality and concentrate on the tried and true. It must get big stars, put them in a beautiful house (which will soon become the staging ground for awful things) and recycle the most effective elements from previous, successful scare-flicks. Audiences have long been conditioned to expect no more and no less. They want the equivalent of an EZ tax form, no fuss, no brains, pay this much.
"Hide and Seek" knows the rules. But here's the key: It plays them very well. It stars Robert De Niro and Dakota Fanning (with Amy Irving and Elisabeth Shue in second-tier tow), and it repeddles elements of other films that I won't mention for fear of giving too much away. There's almost always a point in these movies at which you say to yourself, "Oh, this is stupid," and you simply see the thing through to the end. The good thing about "Hide and Seek" is that this exit point comes extremely late. It doesn't get stupid for a long time! That's the finest compliment these kind of movies can aspire to. This means you'll have a decent time. But it really means, boy, we could use a new visionary writer-director to open up horror's limitations -- you know, so everyone can watch a whole new level of imitations over the subsequent 10 years.
David Callaway (De Niro) wakes up at 2:06 a.m. to a terrible tragedy. Determined to take his traumatized young daughter, Emily (Fanning), away from all this, he moves into a beautiful rustic home in Upstate New York. Perhaps this bucolic setting will help Emily recover from the emotional impact of her mother's (Irving) suicide. Unfortunately, Emily's healing takes a different course. She starts to mention an imaginary friend named Charlie, who is jealous of anyone being close to her, including Dad. Charlie does horrible things when he gets mad. Cue the family cat for its familiar comeuppance.
I must take leave here for the sake of your enjoyment. Let's just mention that David meets a new prospect for his future, a charming and recently divorced woman named Elizabeth (Shue), who has a sweet, precocious niece about Emily's age. Heh, heh, heh. And let's also introduce the usual round of suspicious weirdos, including the overly nosy Sheriff Hafferty (Dylan Baker) and a creepy neighbor (Robert John Burke), who gets oddly friendly with Emily. Even in the tony countryside you gotta watch your back, people.
Well, there's not much more I can tell you except, as cliche-ridden horror films go, "Hide and Seek" builds a pretty darn good mousetrap that is triggered to snap your fingers when you expect it and when you don't. And isn't that pretty much the contract an audience signs up for?
HIDE AND SEEK (R, 100 minutes) -- Contains scary stuff and violence. Area theaters.