"The New Daughter" was treated rather roughly by the Hollywood distribution system last winter, granted only a contractually obligated release in a handful of cities, without any marketing effort whatsoever. Adding to the perceived humiliation was star Kevin Costner, who hasn't enjoyed the best box office luck in recent years, with a vocal minority of the public and press practically rooting for him to fail. After all negativity, it was a great surprise to sit down with "The New Daughter" and find the film to be a proficient chiller, with respectable performances and skilled tech credits. Perhaps it's not an original, but in a genre that demands nonsense, "The New Daughter" appears thoughtfully made and intriguingly restrained.
John James (Kevin Costner) is a novelist with a severe case of writer's block who's taken custody of his two kids, teen Louisa (Ivana Baquero, "Pan's Labyrinth") and boy Sam (Gattlin Griffith), relocating the family to a remote home in the sticks of South Carolina. Trying to make sense out of Louisa's adolescent mood swings, John is quickly overwhelmed, looking for help from a local schoolteacher (Samantha Mathis). However, matters turn spooky when Louisa is drawn to a gigantic dirt mound on the property, which alters her behavior, making her increasingly withdrawn, much to John's unease. Researching the mound after animals and locals turn up dead, John finds an evil force is manipulating his daughter, pitting the reluctant dad against his possessed child.
Directed by Spanish native Luis Berdejo (one of co-writers of "Rec"), "The New Daughter" retains a slight Euro hold of horror that prefers a slow roll of suspense over a series of gore money shots to keep audiences glued to the screen. It's a touch of "Poltergeist," "The Descent," and an ABC Family dramedy rolled into one, taking a short story from author John Connolly and stretching it out to suit theatrical running time requirements. This leaves plenty of room for Berdejo to wind tension steadily, preying on the fears of a single dad who doesn't have an idea how to communicate with his pubescent daughter, much less one succumbing to demonic calls emerging from a particularly nasty hill of dirt.
Of course, it's not just any old dirt, with a majority of the film devoted to John's sleuthing, which takes him to online search engines and to a broken man (James Gammon) who's encountered the mound as well. "New Daughter" doesn't feature the tightest plot around, but the build of revelations is a compelling one, nicely captured by Costner, who has a real gift for playing bewildered. A few jolts are provided by the creepy crawlies John finds around the house and by Louisa's increasingly odd behavior, but most of "New Daughter" is rather tastefully executed, which might disappoint those in search of more highly charged genre theatrics. It's undoubtedly overlong, but the picture embraces the art of anxiety, rewarding the more patient with a tempting agenda of confusion, eerie activities, and ineffective adults.
Once the mound's purpose is revealed, "New Daughter" hits a more common routine of action, evolving into a creature feature as John must defend his family from invading monsters out for the purity of Louisa's soul. There's an element of claustrophobia used to lend the finale some otherwise unearned scares, and Costner seems out of his element dealing with the monster mash, but the shocks stick comfortably.
The VC-1 encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) feels a little hot at times, with daylight pouring into the cinematography, occasionally blowing out the intended details. Otherwise, the presentation is solid, with a nice push of yellows and reds (the color of trouble) to support a terrifically vibrant BD experience. Detail is excellent, permitting the viewer a chance to deduce the visual clues arranged by the director, while facial nuances are always easily surveyed. Skintones run a bit too pink at times, but it's far from distracting. Shadow detail is rock solid, giving a nice wave of menace to evening sequences.
The 5.1 PCM mix is a real event, delivering the suspense with outstanding menace, using directional efforts to wind the horror tightly, while drawing the listener in. It's a superb circular effort, with sound effects slithering through the surrounds, music cues faintly buttressing the threat, and dialogue crisply arranged, clearly understood throughout the entire movie. LFE response is generous when trouble makes an appearance, sparking a mood of throbbing dread when necessary. The track feels deep and purposeful, giving the visuals a lift, paying off in a big way during the grand finale. A 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is also included.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with director Luis Berdejo is a difficult listening situation. The track is informative in a very fundamental manner, with the director exploring his framing and color choices, pointing out his tricks to make this picture "a horror story that didn't look like a horror story." His insight is helpful to appreciating the textures of the movie. However, Berdejo is an awfully dry commentator with a heavy accent, making the talk a bit tough to slog through, even for the most die-hard fan of the movie. At the very least, Berdejo does explain why all the school buses used in the film have yellow stop signs attached to them.
"'The New Daughter:' Behind the Scenes" (10:54) is a simplistic promotional featurette highlighting interviews with cast and crew that illuminate the production effort, with heavy emphasis on exploring the bullet points of the story. Some BTS footage helps to swallow the sell, but this is far from a truly exploratory effort.
"Deleted Scenes" (22:36) provide a richer understanding of the domestic obstacles and discomfort felt by the lead characters, restores a few moments of suspicion and intimacy for John (wrongly cut to tighten pace), and reveals a key piece of backstory needed to help understand the tension of the family.
A Theatrical Trailer is included.
It's far from perfect, but "The New Daughter" is elegantly crafted (cinematography by Checco Varese is gorgeous) and mindful of tension, not just splatter, sneaking around pleasingly. Besides, if a director is able to make a mound of dirt unsettling, clearly there's some clever filmmaking going on.