In shock after his wife's suicide, psychologist David Callaway (De Niro) tries to start afresh, moving to a new home with troubled daughter Emily (Fanning). Things appear to be going well - until Emily introduces him to Charlie, her murderous new pretend-friend.
After last year's unholy Godsend, there can't be many people clamouring for another movie which pairs Robert De Niro with a spooky sprog. Indeed, like its predecessor, Hide And Seek can claim to involve nothing more than a thin premise, treading dark water until it's time to unveil the inevitable 'shock' twist (wouldn't it be more shocking if a movie like this didn't have one?). Populated by characters cribbed from Chapter One of the horror textbook, it's the kind of film that would fall apart without a suspicious sheriff or creepy neighbour to wheel on during night-time scenes.
Screenwriter Ari Schlossberg claims he typed in the dark to capture the right mood. The evidence onscreen, however, suggests that a TV was glowing in the corner of the room all the while. Every stock horror prop under the moon - dolls, music boxes, cats in dark corners - pops up for a guest appearance. Swimfan director John Polson gets in on the act, too, noting the story's blatant steals from The Shining and adding an opening credits sequence that tracks the family car as it winds along mountain roads.
It's doubtful that De Niro and Dakota Fanning were drawn to the project for artistic reasons, but their talents do give Hide And Seek a serious boost. Without them, it's hard to imagine this ever reaching the multiplexes; with them, it becomes something close to involving. Finally shaking himself off autopilot, De Niro gives a quiet, human performance that's his best for a long while. Perhaps he was buoyed by finally being centre-stage in something that's not a sequel or bad cop movie - or maybe it's the Dakota Fanning effect. Following her great double act with Denzel Washington in Man On Fire, the ten-year-old A-lister proves she can do hard-edged, being all blank eyes and callow skin as she torments her loving dad.
When it's just the two of them on the screen, Hide And Seek seems on the verge of clawing its way out of the cliche-pit. But there's just too much schlock and not enough shock - the cavern-set climax is laughable and that suspicious sheriff is never far away...
Hide And Seek tries to follow in The Shining's footsteps but ends up lost in a labyrinth of banality. Aside from some effectively understated acting from the leads, there's not much to remember or recommend.