Any time a press release is issued to announce ''extraordinary measures" of safeguarding a movie's secrets, the outlook for organic excitement is not good. With the horror thriller ''Hide and Seek," Twentieth Century Fox is supposedly going to the trouble and expense of numbering the final reel and shipping it separately from the rest of the film, plus having security guards hand-deliver the reel to theaters.
Maybe M. Night Shyamalan gets away with empty hype (see ''The Village," et al.), but first-time screenwriter Ari Schlossberg's unspectacular ''Hide and Seek" script needs protecting about as much as the average citizen needs color-coded terrorism alerts. A credible scare speaks for itself. And if memory serves, Alfred Hitchcock's ''Psycho" did OK without chaperones or gag orders.
Needless to say, ''Hide and Seek" isn't ''Psycho." It isn't even ''Swimfan," director John Polson's previous stylishly-lighted-but-sightless attempt to rattle our bones. It does, however, have a few things going for it -- star power, some truly creepy moments, excellent eye makeup -- that might be enough for viewers who don't come looking for a major payoff. For them, the basic plot summary is as follows, minus (heaven forbid) spoilers:
''Hide and Seek" opens in Manhattan, where Emily Callaway (Dakota Fanning, in an ominous brown wig) is a seemingly normal 9-year-old who adores her mom (Amy Irving) and sleeps with her bedroom door open a crack. Her father, David (Robert De Niro), is an unflappable therapist and family man, but his marriage is clearly troubled. In the middle of the night, Emily's mother is discovered with her wrists slit in a bathtub full of blood. Emily's demeanor abruptly darkens.
David thinks his sullen daughter needs a change of scenery, so he moves her to a small town upstate, where the cold gray woods are almost as off-putting as the locals. Almost immediately, Emily spots a cave in those woods and goes exploring. The circles under her hard blue eyes darken more, as does her bedroom doorway.
Quicker than you can count to ''three one thousand," disturbing signs start appearing at the Callaway house, including threats scratched in crayon and maimed dolls' faces in the trash. Emily blames all the weirdness on her invisible new friend, Charlie, but is Charlie a harmless product of Emily's tormented imagination, or is he something else that puts them in real danger?
Forced to be more restrained than precocious this time out, Fanning is easier to take than she has been in the past (try watching ''Uptown Girls"), and she does have an unsettling quality that aids the creepier moments. De Niro's character is practically a zombie in the first two thirds of the movie, but comes alive in the final act, which -- silly as the story line is -- at least lets the actor have a little fun. Everybody else in this film is completely wasted, with the stock parade of characters including a snoopy sheriff (Dylan Baker), a sexy divorcee (Elisabeth Shue), and a sympathetic shrink (Famke Janssen).
Ignore the hype. You won't find anything startling or memorable in the derivative ''Hide and Seek." Those guards are wasting their time.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.