by Patrick Bromley
When I first heard that Katt Shea (Stripped to Kill, Poison Ivy) was directing a new adaptation of Nancy Drew starring Sophia Lillis, the breakout star of It, it immediately shot up on my "want to see" list. I only knew it was opening this weekend because I happened to check my theater listings. I hadn't seen a trailer, hadn't seen a TV spot, despite the fact that it's a Warner Bros. movie. Of course, the poster suggests that the studio had no interest in actually marketing this movie -- that one sheet looks less like a DTV effort than it does something for the Hallmark channel. It's almost as if they didn't know what they had.
Based on the book of the same name by Carolyn Keene (the second volume in the long-running Nancy Drew mysteries), The Hidden Staircase casts Lillis as Nancy, a spunky 16-year old who resents having been transplanted to the small town of River Heights with her widower father (Sam Trammell). Though she means well, she's seen by much of the town as a troublemaker, causing property damage as she plays pranks as revenge against bullies. When the town sheriff ignores the claims from the eccentric old Flora (Linda Lavin) that her house is haunted, Nancy naturally takes an interest. She teams with Flora's Mean Girl niece Helen (Laura Wiggins) to investigate the hauntings and discovers town secrets and hidden agendas, et cetera, et cetera. You know how Nancy Drew do.
The real story of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase for me is the return of Katt Shea to the director's chair after two decades. Shea hasn't directed a theatrical feature since 1999's The Rage: Carrie II, or directed any films at all since the made-for-TV Sharing the Secret in 2000. I've always been a big fan of Shea as a filmmaker -- a recent revisit of her early films alongside my wife has confirmed as much -- but I'm also a fan of Shea as a person. As a student of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking, Shea knows how to make a movie that's always energetic and always entertaining, and while Nancy Drew has to be less transgressive than her usual work by virtue of the fact that it's a family film, it still has her usual focus on strong, independent female characters navigating a world of unique dangers. It's a different sort of Katt Shea movie, but it's still a Katt Shea movie.