Onward from its overture, when a nine-year-old glimpses her mother’s corpse in a bloody bath, John Polson’s garbled bogeyman tale Hide and Seek avails itself of all the shock-horror opportunities implicit in the spectacle of a traumatized child. Following Mom’s demise, kindly New York psychologist David (Robert De Niro) seeks a change of scene for himself and his withdrawn daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning), and sensibly decides on a scary-movie set, i.e., a remote old manse in a depopulated upstate summer town (woods, check; lake, check; creepy sheriff, check). There, David awakes many a night to discover a macabre series of bathtub-set tableaux. Emily, whose major hobby is disfiguring dolls, blames the mischief on Charlie, her apparently imaginary friend. But once another stiff turns up in the soak, it’s obvious this elusive joker takes fleshly form.

Despite some shuffling efforts toward cable-knit cuddliness, De Niro sometimes evokes Max Cady in cardigan-Dad drag, but the wraithlike Fanning—with her bottomless, all-knowing eyes and lank dark locks—could have stepped straight out of a J-horror classic; indeed, if Fanning’s acute evocation of near-autistic psychic damage were less credible, the film’s unrelenting child exploitation frenzy would be less offensive. Scripted by first-timer Ari Schlossberg as a grisly collision of The Bad Seed and Secret Window, Hide and Seek follows no semblance of internal logic—the unveiling of Charlie is a ludicrous cheat, the last reel a unique paroxysm of rancid idiocy.