The year's first laugh-out-loud-funny thriller, "Hide and Seek," owes much to Stephen King and not a little to the perilous path of being too self-referential.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are!" beckons an oft-repeated piece of dialogue, echoing star Robert De Niro's Max Cady in the 1991 version of "Cape Fear." It's a silly connective -- using intentional humor to leaven the tension. Unfortunately, a far more frequent occurrence in "Hide and Seek" is inadvertent laughter at the film's silly dialogue and the dunderheaded actions of its characters.
After the unexpected death of his wife, New York City psychologist David Callaway -- played by De Niro with hand-wringing solemnity for most of the film -- moves his traumatized 9-year-old daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning), upstate to a large rambling home in the woods outside a rustic town. Surrounded by leafless, Gorey-esque trees and a handful of creepy neighbors, it's just the place to raise an emotionally troubled child.
Fanning, with her usual blond locks dyed Wednesday Addams black, plays Emily as the ultimate devil child. Damien Thorn from "The Omen" has nothing on this kid. As Emily becomes more withdrawn, her father tries to get her to open up in order to find out what's going on behind those soulless blue-gray eyes.
Strange things begin happening around the house -- cryptic messages are scrawled in blood-red crayon in the bathroom, dolls are mutilated, a family pet comes to a bad end -- all of which Emily blames on her new friend, Charlie.
The "come out, come out" line is taken from the children's game of the title, which Emily once played with her mother and now enjoys with Charlie. The crux of the film's action occurs when the unperceptive David finally gets around to being alarmed enough to try to determine whether Charlie is Emily's coping mechanism -- a make-believe friend -- or an actual person who has invaded their lives.
What De Niro is doing in the film is anyone's guess. He seems to have lost interest in being taken seriously as an actor, content to lampoon his earlier career as one of cinema's great performers, run his film festival and appear as an icon in commercials for American Express.
It's really Fanning's film anyway, allowing her to add a gothic layer to the preternatural children she played in "I Am Sam," "Man on Fire" and the sci-fi miniseries "Taken." Any campiness is strictly the result of John Polson's direction.
As with his previous feature, "Swimfan," Polson seems inordinately fond of genre cliches, as if packing in more of them will actually make the movie scary. Nor is subtlety a factor as the director clubs the audience over the head with predictable setups and John Ottman's overwrought score.
The broad outline of first-time screenwriter Ari Schlossberg's story might have worked with the double-distended-twist ending, but the execution defies any chance of an audience suspending its disbelief.
From its ludicrous pre-title sequence to the drawn-out finale and its blatant setup for a sequel, the movie pulls down more laughs per minute than your average Ben Stiller comedy. Unless you're a connoisseur of movies that are so bad they're good, "Hide and Seek" is one game you're not going to want to play.
'Hide and Seek'
MPAA rating: R for frightening sequences and violence
Times guidelines: Most of the violence occurs off screen but we're faced with lots of the bloody residue.
Robert De Niro...David Callaway
Dakota Fanning...Emily Callaway
Amy Irving...Alison Callaway
Twentieth Century Fox presents a Josephson Entertainment production, released by Fox. Director John Polson. Producer Barry Josephson. Executive producer Joe Carraciolo Jr. Director of photography Dariusz Wolski. Editor Jeffrey Ford. Music John Ottman. Production design Steven Jordan. Costume design Aude Bronson-Howard. Art directors Dennis Bradford, Emily Beck. Set decorator Beth Kushnick. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
In general release.