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Horrid Horror

'Hide and Seek' leaves viewers with questions, like: Why is Robert De Niro trying to destroy his career?

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Remember Roy Scheider? He was a huge star 25 years ago, and now you almost never hear from him. He went from headlining two of the top-grossing films of the 70s, Jaws and All That Jazz, to doing bit parts on TV dramas. And it's not like he was a bad actor: He was generally quite acclaimed, was nominated for two Oscars for legitimately good performances (in Jazz and French Connection), and the next thing you know, he's playing Uncle Leo on a very special episode of Mr. Belvedere.

Scheider's big mistake was that he started taking roles the way J-Lo takes men to be her lawfully wedded husband: rapidly and without discretion. I bring up Scheider's career because it seems that Robert De Niro is now trying to follow in his footsteps.

At this point, I'm guessing that if you got Jessica Simpson to free-associate a screenplay, then you typed it up on toilet paper, wiped yourself with it and threw it at De Niro, he'd at least give it a read-through. Although, to be fair, based on his last few films, it seems De Niro does have some standards: He'll only appear in movies that suck.

Hide and Seek is probably his limpest recent film, and with Meet The Fockers and Analyze That in the running, Hide and Seek would have to be limper than ... well, you know, make your own simile using Colin Powell's potency as a secretary of state as your starting point.

Of course, the real problem with the movies De Niro deigns to appear in is not his acting. In fact, in Hide and Seek, he's mostly fine. By mostly, I mean that he's fine until it's time for the big surprise secret ending, which I can't give away here, but let me just say that Norman Bates is his own mother.

No, the problem is that this "horror" movie (and here I think the term refers to the horror of watching a great actor descend so rapidly into B-movie parts) is simply a rehash of a half-dozen other horror films.

All of which are better than Hide and Seek. While I like the idea of a twisty, creepy drama about murder and mayhem, it's necessary that the twists come about as logical extensions of the plot. If things that occurred in the first part of the film are not what they appeared to be, then the revelation as to what was actually going on has to at least plausibly mesh with what was already shown. In Hide and Seek, though, the plot has the logical consistency of the current administration's rationale for war in Iraq. First it's one thing, then it's another, and they have to pretend like the first thing never happened. That's fine for foreign policy, but it doesn't fly in a suspense thriller.

But that's what we're stuck with in Hide and Seek. The film begins with Dr. David Calloway (De Niro) walking up in the middle of the night to find that his wife (Amy Irving) has committed suicide. Unfortunately, this also awakens their 9-year-old daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning.)

Considering De Niro's age, it's a little odd to see him playing Fanning's father, and not her ancestor. But whatever; it's a movie, so we'll let that slide in much the way that De Niro's once impeccable career has slid into the cinematic gutter.

The trauma of seeing her mom in a pool of blood makes Emily go all Wednesday Addams, and she starts walking around with dark circles under her eyes. Though perhaps that was an attempt to emulate De Niro. Nonetheless, she dresses in black, says the kind of creepy things that kids in horror movies say and begins to cavort with her imaginary serial-killer friend Charlie.

Or is he imaginary? Or isn't he? Or is he? That's pretty much the hook, and while there are a couple of good possibilities, the end of the film reveals that, instead of choosing one of the plausible answers, the writer probably suffered a small stroke and invented an ending that was largely unrelated to the preceding storyline.

The film is slow in getting to the gore, so it "fleshes things out" by showing a lot of shots of Elisabeth Shue's cleavage. While I hate to offend Ms. Shue (or anyone, really), I must note, in my role as film reviewer, that her cleavage is not the sort you really want to be looking at. Then again, this is a horror film, so if you're creeped out by the thought of your grandmother wearing a low-cut teddy, then this will probably give you the requisite scare.

While De Niro's considerable talents are wasted here, he's not alone. Two of my favorite actors, Dylan Baker (Happiness, Thirteen Days) and Robert John Burke (No Such Thing, Simple Men) are also seen punching the clock in this one. Lesser-known talents like these are excused for making a little quick cash on projects like this, but I can't even begin to fathom why De Niro would get involved.

He did recently say that he was just happy to still be working at his age. I would think he'd be even happier to be working at something decent.

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