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‘Hide and Seek’ another De Niro disaster

A little girl deals with her mother’s death in a spooky manner. By John Hartl

Now that Robert De Niro has clearly entered his horror-trash period, you’d think he’d at least do it with a little humor or enthusiasm.

After all, Marlon Brando had a camping good time in “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” Laurence Olivier cheerfully did his bit for the genre with a sexy remake of “Dracula,” and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford stylishly reinvented themselves as aging horror queens with “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

But “Hide and Seek,” De Niro’s latest horror, is every bit as witless and phony as last year’s De Niro time-waster, “Godsend.” In some ways it even suggests an instant remake. Once more he’s playing an authority figure who is forced to deal with a demonic child with split-personality problems.

The opening scenes promise more than the movie ever delivers. De Niro plays an apparently clueless Manhattan shrink, David Callaway, whose wife, Alison (Amy Irving), ominously tells him that some things are beyond therapy. She then proves it by slitting her wrists and expiring while he’s asleep. Their young daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning), is traumatized when she witnesses David pulling her mother out of a blood-filled bathtub.

David decides a change of scene is necessary, so they move to a small upstate New York town where Emily rejects everyone in favor of her imaginary friend, Charlie, who appears to be a close cousin to the monstrous Chucky doll from the “Child’s Play” movies. Emily becomes a very creepy child, silent and sullen and instantly jealous of anyone who pays attention to David.

Since the town is so small, David gets a lot of attention from Elizabeth Young (Elisabeth Shue), a divorcee at loose ends, and Sheriff Hafferty (Dylan Baker), a nosy lawman who can’t resist poking around in dark places. The movie quickly turns into a suspense-killing mixture of “The Bad Seed” and “The Exorcist,” as Emily becomes unhinged and "Charlie" turns dangerous.

There is, of course, a twist ending, though it’s telegraphed so often that it induces more giggles than shocks. Once it’s introduced, well before the finale, the filmmakers insist on dragging the movie out to a squirm-worthy 102 minutes. And their idea of a twist upon the twist is shockingly obvious. Only the skillful editing by Jeffrey Ford and the moody cinematography by Dariusz Wolski lend some polish to the picture.

“Hide and Seek” is the first produced screenplay by Ari Schlossberg, a New York writer who appears to offer nothing new to the genre, aside from a few jittery haunted-house touches and satirical pokes at menacing small-town types. It’s utterly depressing to contemplate how this collection of hoary cliches could have been passed off as something worth the attention of such a talented cast. What are Shue and Baker doing here?

The director is an Australian filmmaker, John Polson, who had a minor hit with a similar thriller, “Swimfan,” though he’s better-known as an actor (most prominently in “Mission Impossible II”). He does next to nothing to save the actors from themselves.