Technically speaking, this week’s straight-to-DVD film didn’t go straight to DVD. “The New Daughter,” starring Kevin Costner, did receive a very small release last December. How small? So small that people who cover movies for a living had no idea the film was coming out until the day before it opened (this, by the way, is BAD SIGN YOUR MOVIE IS GOING STRAIGHT TO DVD #3 [even if not technically]).
Web sites like Shock Till You Drop put up incredulous articles the day before “The New Daughter”‘s December release date (chosen, no doubt, to ensure Oscar eligibility) noting the highly unusual circumstance of a film featuring a relatively major star getting dumped into theaters with absolutely no marketing or promotion.
Given that fact, I’m willing to grandfather “The New Daughter” into this column, considering the only way 99% of people would have the chance to see it was when it showed up last month in video stores. It’s sort of like that old adage about a tree falling in the woods. If a movie opens in theaters, and no one realizes it’s playing, did it ever get released?
“The New Daughter” (2009)
Directed by Luis Berdejo
Tagline: How far with a father go to protect the ones he loves?
Tweetable Plot Synopsis: Newly single father of two moves to old country house with incredible views of the mouth of hell. His daughter gets replaced by dirt devil.
Salable Elements: A rare starring role in a horror film for Costner and direction from Luis Berdejo, the Spanish horror specialist best known as one of the writers of the cult film “[Rec].”
Biggest Success: One of Costner’s character John’s two children is Louisa, a young teenager; she’s played by “Pan’s Labyrinth”‘s Ivana Baquero. Disappointed with her missing mother, unhappy with her ill-equipped father, Louisa becomes particularly fascinated by a large dirt mound on the property surrounding the family’s new house. Before you can say “Is this movie really trying to scare me with a big pile of dirt?” Louisa has fallen under its supernatural spell.
The screenplay by John Travis, based on a short story by John Connolly, does a nice job of using her mound-spurred emotional transformation as a metaphor for puberty. Like a lot of fathers of teenagers, John suddenly feels like he doesn’t recognize his own child, like she’s been replaced with someone totally different (and, in this case, she kinda has been).
Biggest Failure: I’d call the fact that this “horror” film is not particularly scary a pretty big failure. Berdejo seems to be going for a “Jaws” approach to the scares; we quickly realize something is going on in this house but all we’re shown are fleeting glimpses of weird things crawling in the dark or running just beyond the edges of the frame. That approach worked in “Jaws” because the film was told from the perspective of three men on a boat who couldn’t see their prey. It’s one thing not to show a monster who’s lurking out of view. It’s another entirely to bend over backwards to keep the audience in the dark even as the protagonists see everything.
In one particularly bad scene, John is riding shotgun in a police car with the local sheriff, driving through the woods looking for mound monsters. When a horror movie cliché knocks out their headlight, the cop sticks his head out the window and is promptly attacked and pulled out of the car. Though Costner watches the guy get slaughtered from about the distance of your face from your computer screen, we don’t get a single clear shot of what’s happening, just flashes of arms and legs and Costner giving his best Eric Roberts Surprise Face. Imagine how pissed off you be if you never saw the shark eat Quint and you start to get the idea.
Best Moment: When John can’t figure out why his daughter is acting so strangely, he does what any lazy person does when he has a problem he can’t solve: he looks it up on the internet. For one hilarious montage, Kevin Costner Googles (or the closest fake movie website equivalent) all of his issues.
He starts with “odd behavior, daughter” and when that doesn’t yield “It’s not hormones: IT’S LANDSCAPING!” he enters “lame father” and “Crappy dad.” Since his picture doesn’t come up, he searches “Mound, strange” and then “mound, scientist, South Carolina” which brings him to Noah Taylor’s character, who’ll appear in an all-too-brief role later in the movie. What he should have done instead is Googled “The Amityville Horror” so he’d know how his movie was going to end.
Special Features: “The New Daughter” disc includes a ten-minute behind-the-scenes featurette about the production, which includes interviews with most of the cast and crew. Travis, the screenwriter, talks about the scene that was the hardest to write in the film, picking the one “in the living room where John is holding a shotgun and he’s aiming it at Louisa, knowing that if he doesn’t pull the trigger, him and Sam are going to be eaten alive.” Maybe “the hardest scene to write” is screenwriter code for “the worst scene I wrote,” because it doesn’t appear in the final cut.
Worthy of a Theatrical Release: No, this movie isn’t even worthy of the tiny release it did get. I liked Costner a lot in his late ’80s and early ’90s heyday, but I think there’s a reason that he made so few horror films over his long career: he’s not comfortable in them. His entire persona is based on laid-back charm and tough determination. He just doesn’t play scared all that convincingly; he mostly just rubs his eyes and sighs. Admittedly, the fault there could lie as much with the screenplay as his performance, since it asks so little of the character’s intelligence and so much of the audience’s patience.
I mean, if your family was imperiled, if you were fairly convinced there was something in the woods around your house eating your pets and your babysitters, wouldn’t you’d be at the nearest Residence Inn inside of an hour? You certainly wouldn’t leave your kids at the house on Bloodletting Lane with a decrepit old woman while you go investigate another murder alone. And why doesn’t anyone in this movie have a cell phone? The only people who would find this movie scary are rupophobics, a group that’s probably an even smaller percentage of the American population than the folks who saw this film in theaters.
For Further Viewing: Here’s something that’s truly terrifying: Kevin Costner is the man BP has turned to for help with cleaning up the oil spill.
[Photos: “The New Daughter,” Anchor Bay Films, 2009]