Review: The Haunting of Molly Hartley

From the studio that brought the world In the Name of the King" and "Dragon Wars" comes "The Haunting of Molly Hartley" (IMDb listing). Perhaps Freestyle Releasing isn't concerned with producing a competent film for their growing library of titles, which makes their latest effort quite a rousing success. A high school drama with colorless demonic overtones, "Hartley" is a last-minute Halloween stab at box office gold and a resoundingly idiotic one at that.

A new face at a private school, Molly Hartley (Haley Bennett, "Music and Lyrics") is having trouble fitting in, battling headaches, nosebleeds, and mysterious voices on a daily basis. With her father (Jake Weber) pushing medicinal solutions, Molly is more concerned with her psychotic mother, who rots away inside a local mental hospital and haunts the frightened girl's every step. Trying to adapt to her environment, Molly finds comfort with friends both born-again (Shanna Collins) and Juno-like (Shannon Marie Woodward), the school counselor (Nina Siemaszko), and flirty dreamboat Joseph (Chace Crawford). Just finding her stride, Molly's life is swept away by madness when she learns the horrifying truth behind her upcoming 18th birthday.

"Hartley" is such an impossibly goofy motion picture that it almost defies explanation. Whatever tone of dread director Mickey Liddell was aiming for here has missed its mark by a country mile. Instead the picture is an amateurish mess, trying desperately to hold together a narrative that feels as though it was cut in half, fighting to appear scary with all the bloodshed removed to keep a PG-13 rating, and spotlighting a cast of young actors who don't have any business being in front of a camera. How this clumsy picture actually found a theatrical release is baffling. Then again, Crawford is the star of "Gossip Girl," the much buzzed-about show nobody actually watches, and he remains front page news on several character-assassinating celebrity blogs. Too bad his acting skills make Zac Efron look like Lee Strasberg's T.A.

"Hartley" doesn't make much sense when the film finally reveals itself in full, but why should it have to? After all, there's no pass at a story here, just a series of loosely connected boo scares from a director who must be under the assumption the audience has never seen a horror film before. Even the simple act of mail delivery receives its own booming sound effect. The endless buffet of cheap jolts is merely covering up the ludicrousness of the plot, which Liddell has no idea how to package properly into a blistering, end-of-days fright fest. Instead the staging is straight out of community theater, the wild plot twists lack any reasonable setup, and the conclusion of this relentlessly silly movie is bizarrely pro-evil. Hooray?

When it comes to excruciating Halloween activities, I think I'd prefer a Milky Way/razor blade surprise to this asinine, pathetic motion picture.

Filmfodder Grade: D-