What is it with Bobby De Niro? Doesn’t he feel like Acting anymore? Isn’t he tired of poking fun at his tough-guy persona in umpteen comedies or giving unearned credibility to B-movies, allowing them to boast that they star an “Academy Award Winner”? The man used to be Scorsese’s fetish actor and now he’s playing second banana to Dakota Fanning? How the mighty fall! I mean, seriously, I’m sure most people attending “Hide and Seek” don’t even care that De Niro’s in it, they’re going for the creepy little girl. I know I am!

Is it wrong to get excited about a Dakota Fanning film? Probably, but I get my kicks wherever I can, which sometimes means going to see bad movies to laugh at them. It sounds too good to be true: Dakota Fanning going Goth and killing people! Unfortunately, that’s not quite what this movie is like. It’s actually well crafted and what laughs it gets are mostly intended.

De Niro plays Dr. David Callaway, a psychologist who moves to a quiet upstate New York smalltown after his wife’s suicide in hope that his young daughter Emily (Fanning) will be able to work through her grief in these new surroundings. All she finds, though, is a mysterious new friend who calls himself Charlie, mutilates her dolls, stages disturbing bathroom scenes in the middle of the night (“YOU LET HER DIE”) and likes to plays games, especially when it involves “upsetting Daddy”…

Director John Polson, with assists from composer John Ottman and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, effectively creates tension through the set-up. The big house, the ominous woods and lake nearby, the railroad, they all seem like potential death traps. I also like how the whole town seems populated with weirdoes, the weirdest of them all being the Sheriff himself (Dylan Baker, still sending that pedophile vibe 7 years after¬†Happiness). There are a few female characters who seem balanced enough (Famke Janssen, Elizabeth Shue’s cleavage), but every horror movie needs innocent victims, right?

As expected, the most fun thing in the film is Dakota’s Mexican Staring Frog performance. The precocious actress has been unfairly accused of being creepy for a long time, but here she truly gives you the creeps and then some! “Let’s hope you don’t wind up like her.” “You’re gonna make him mad.” “It’s a picture of you. Dying.”

I was ready to recommend “Hide and Seek” as a satisfying little horror flick, but then it had to go for an unnecessary twist ending. It’s not even surprising, as I suspected this turn of event just from watching the trailer, but what sucks is how it makes what came before feel pointless, like the whoel film is one big cheat. Can’t we have straight thrillers anymore? Do they all have to attempt Shyamalaning the audience? You might still want to catch the picture when it hits DVD to have a few chills and chuckles with Dakota, but be warned that the payoff doesn’t… pay off.