Who the hell has been giving Robert De Niro such rotten career advice?

The once raging bull has gone from silly comedies (the Meet the Parents and Analyze This series) to wasting our time in Hide and Seek. The alleged thriller starts off creepy enough but ultimately doesn’t deliver on the trailer’s tantalizing promise of an all-out freak-out fest.

So there you sit for an hour in a dark theater with spooky orchestral music and eerie landscapes leading you to believe things are going to get scarier, but all the while you’re not quite sure why you’re freaking out. Horror film nirvana, it would seem.

A good deal of the eerie tension comes from little Dakota Fanning (Uptown Girls, Man on Fire), who has thankfully shed her cutie-pie-with-an-attitude sensibility and dyed her hair dark brown to match the heavy circles painted under her eyes. An acting dynamo at just 10 years old, her new somber style, well-developed evil glare and bugged-out eyes make for one spooky kid, possibly outdoing a young Christina Ricci in the freaky-looking department.

Fanning should be used to stealing the show by now, as she does again in Hide and Seek. She plays Emily, a young New York rich girl who just found her mother dead in a bloody bathtub. Her father (De Niro) is a psychologist who’s decided to move the family to the country to help them heal, settling into a huge old house set in an isolated patch of woods, surrounded by a cast of supporting characters who are all acting edgy, as if they know something you don’t.

Or do they? I’ll never tell.

Fox, in fact, has made a huge deal about keeping the ending a secret. They sent only the first two reels of the film to theaters in advance, promising to deliver the final reel on Hide and Seek’s official release date.

I will say this much: Fox should have sent the ending to the cutting room floor.

The first hour of Hide and Seek draws its fear factor from too many scary movie clichés (the eerie silent pale-faced kid, a screeching tea kettle, a window that seems to have opened itself, and so forth), but at least it works. At the end, however, it’s as if director John Polson and writer Ari Schlossberg abandoned all the suspense they’d worked to build up, taking the final act on a random course meant to bring the biggest shock possible.

Too bad, because the biggest shock at the end of Hide and Seek is that it winds up more laughable than scary. Its big “aha!” moment really sounds more like “ha ha!”

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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