Points to “The Haunting of Molly Hartley” for defying conventions in its provocative final twist, but the movie really makes you work for it — to get to the finish line, audiences will be forced to endure trite dialogue, familiar situations and uninspired acting.
After a flashback intro where a young girl is murdered by her father on the eve of her 18th birthday because of what she’s “going to become,” we meet Molly (Haley Bennett), a troubled young girl starting classes at a snooty prep school. She recently survived her mother stabbing her in the chest with scissors, and Molly and her father (Jake Weber) try to put the incident behind them.
The school provides the usual pretty mean girls and thoughtless cads; about the only people who are nice to Molly are born-again Christian Alexis (Shanna Collins) and hunky jock Joseph (Chace Crawford). While she tries to fit in, Molly is besieged by visions of her mother attacking her and of mysterious, shadowy figures calling her name.
Is Molly going crazy, just like mom? Or could it be that Mom wasn’t insane but had a legitimate reason for trying to kill her daughter?
Screenwriters John Travis and Rebecca Sonnenshine, to their credit, don’t take the story to the safe, predictable places you might expect. But they indulge in tons of clichés, from the prep school meanies to the BOO! jolts that come at the most obvious times.
First-time director Mickey Liddell fails to transcend the material, either through creating a spooky ambience or by getting his young cast to make more out of their paper-thin characters than is on the page. Collins (the sexually precocious daughter on the underrated “Swingtown”) at least gets a role that puts her striking and unusual features to good use, but teen pin-up Crawford, as usual, does all his acting with his eyebrows and cheekbones.
“The Haunting of Molly Hartley” flirts with having something to say about budding female sexuality and evangelical religion, but it winds up being a pale copy of several of Roman Polanski’s more chilling films. (Molly at one point runs past a local repertory theater playing “The Tenant.”) The big finish of this Halloween release will surprise moviegoers — and possibly annoy some parents taking their 12-year-olds to see “Molly Hartley” for a late-October scare — but too much of the movie is stale candy corn.