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John’s Horror Corner: The Haunting of Molly Hartley (2008), the teen horrors of high school in another Horror-LITE for beginners.

February 14, 2023

MY CALL: All the teen angst and horrors of adolescence, but none of the movie horror… at least, not for seasoned horror-goers. MORE MOVIES LIKE The Haunting of Molly Hartley: If you enjoy this style of young adult horror, then you might consider Séance (2021). For a more wild coming-of-age high school story, try Excision (2012). I haven’t seen the “sequel” to this movie (i.e., The Exorcism of Molly Hartley (2015)), but I’m inclined to pass.

Having suffered a horrible, near-death trauma at the hands of her disturbed mother (Marin Hinkle; Quarantine), Molly Hartley (Haley Bennett; Swallow, The Hole) lives with PTSD as she attempts to start fresh at a new prep school. She is plagued by nightmares she keeps to herself and social distractions abound both at home and at school. Meanwhile her father (Jake Weber; The Beach House, Dawn of the Dead, The Cell) just wants her to be happy and to consider forgiving her mother, her school counselor (Nina Siemaszko; The Hatred) is watching for signs of inherited schizophrenia, a classmate (Chace Crawford; The Boys, The Covenant) is turning on his charm, and the top ‘mean girl’ Suzie (AnnaLynne McCord; Tone-Deaf, Trash Fire, Day of the Dead, Excision) is trying to get in her way at every opportunity. So, yeah—drama!

As the story develops, so too does the high school drama. Molly lies to her father to sneak away to a party, she gets in a fight and injures her bully, she gets peer pressured to be “saved” by her Christian classmate, and she keeps having nightmares about her mother. Oh but wait, that last nightmare wasn’t a nightmare. Aaaaaand now her crazy mother is dead in a toothless scene lacking the horror it deserved.

Being Mickey Liddell’s only director credit, this film is well-made, well-written, well-produced and well-acted. What the film lacks is any sense of earned horror, intensity, creepiness or urgency. All the teen angst and horrors of adolescence (done well), but not enough of the movie horror.  Atmosphere is not cultivated into tension—things just “happen.” We keep getting “told” that Molly’s situation is bad, but I hardly feel nervous for her even when her Baptism turns into attempted murder in the name of God. Even the “big finale reveal” felt completely unearned; just dropped in our lap with way too much bland exposition. I’d prefer something more vague, with more mystique, especially considering the cold open when a paranoid father killed his own daughter (Jessica Lowndes;Abattoir, Altitude, The Devil’s Carnival) who was hearing things.

This film closes tongue-in-cheek with the kind of ending you’d expect from a high school RomCom like 10 Things I Hate About You(1999), with a graduation ceremony, a triumphant speech from the Valedictorian, and the will-they-won’t-they couple finally together. It ends like a happy ending and a young adult horror twist.

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