“The Haunting of Molly Hartley” isn’t bad as far as movie titles go, though it would be a lot better if the movie contained any actual haunting. The girl is plagued by voices that say “Molly!” and “I know what you are!,” but is that really a “haunting”? It’s more like “The Annoying of Molly Hartley” or “The Messing Around with Molly Hartley’s Mind.”
At any rate, this lame, tame psychological thriller stars Haley Bennett as Molly, who has just moved with her father (Jake Weber) to a new house and new school after an unsettling incident in which Molly’s mother tried to kill her. (Oops!) Mom (Marin Hinkle) is now in the loony bin, which at least reduces the awkwardness around the house, but Molly fears she might be starting to suffer from the same craziness that made her mother go all stabby. She’s been having hallucinations both visual and auditory (or “aditory,” according to the book she reads; nice work, props department!), and that’s cause for concern.
Molly’s new school is a fancy prep academy for rich kids, notably Joseph Young (Chace Crawford), who is dreamy and friendly, and Alexis (Shanna Collins), who is friendly and poor. She’s there on scholarship and is a pariah for being un-rich, and also for being a devout Christian. (Like most movie Christians, Alexis is portrayed as being humorless, strident, and irrational.) Molly is also befriended by Leah (Shannon Marie Woodward), the Bad Girl who wears fishnet stockings and smokes cigarettes in the bathroom. Joseph’s ex-girlfriend, Suzie (AnnaLynne McCord), is the requisite blond Mean Girl. If it weren’t for time constraints, I’m sure we’d have been introduced to the Nerd, the Jock, and the Drama Queen, too. You get the idea.
The plot concerns itself primarily with Molly’s growing fears about her own sanity, and her recurring visions of her mother, who her father insists is still safely locked up and NOT appearing in Molly’s bathroom. Assertions are made about what will happen when Molly turns 18 next week; the film’s prologue, set a decade earlier, focused on another girl Molly’s age whose father didn’t want her reaching that pivotal birthday, either.
The filmmaker, Mickey Liddell, a producer who’s taking his first crack at directing, uses the common tricks — sudden loud noises, creepy dreams, etc. — to create suspense, but it’s futile. The screenplay (by John Travis and Rebecca Sonnenshine) is so simplistic and unimaginative that there’s not much even an experienced, talented director could do to make it scary. That’s to say nothing of the finale, which is baffling and unsatisfying — I had to call a friend afterward to make sure I hadn’t missed something that would have made it all make sense. (I hadn’t. It doesn’t.)
I think some good ideas might be lurking underneath all the blandness. Molly’s having a crazy mother who sees evil in her daughter’s physical maturation reminds me of “Carrie,” and surely there’s a lot to be explored in the balance between religious belief and religious insanity. Molly’s English class is studying “Paradise Lost,” which deals with (among other things) the highly relevant theme of destiny vs. free will, but that angle goes unmentioned. It’s as if the filmmakers sought to strip the story of every possible nuance and make something that was truly generic.
None of the characters are compelling or even particularly realistic, including Molly herself. Twenty-year-old Haley Bennett, who had roles in last year’s “Music and Lyrics” and this summer’s flop “College,” seems to lack the charisma necessary to carry an entire film by herself — but then again, the cookie-cutter screenplay and by-the-numbers direction don’t exactly do her any favors, either. While the usual crop of PG-13-rated teen-centric thrillers can at least be expected to give you some unsettling images or chilling plot devices, “The Haunting of Molly Hartley” can’t even manage that much. I’ve read fortune cookies that were scarier, not to mention smarter and more interesting.
D+ (1 hr., 24 min.; )