If big lonely houses are the classic cauldrons for toil and trouble in Hollywood horror, little kids are its most active ingredient. From The Shining to The Sixth Sense, the corrupted innocence of kiddies turned morbid or outright evil keeps coming back to haunt us.

You know the type?wide-eyed, tight-lipped tots who are either dead, know way too much about death, or like to rip the heads off dolls in their spare time. By the dictates of the genre, these creepy kids are pale, thin, and basically look the part of the reaper's un-hooded Mini-Me's, regardless of life signs. The job has had its ups and downs: while rotting and dripping with well water didn't make for the most flattering publicity shots of The Ring's tendril-haired Daveigh Chase, seeing dead people did almost get Sixth Sense star Haley Joel Osment the Oscar. And what kid doesn't want one of those next to the tee-ball trophy?even if they have to go goth to do it? Surely Barney would understand.

Enter Dakota Fanning, the new kid star in town, browning her blond locks to play a particularly memorable creepy kid in, as luck would have it, this year's first forgettable horror flick, Hide and Seek. On the bright side, at least her next film, War of the Worlds, is a Spielberg, and won't have to do with robots?much.

In Hide and Seek, Dakota plays Emily Callaway, a little girl made eerily sullen by her mother's sudden bathtub suicide. Soon after she and her father move out to the country?obviously into a big house, obviously in the deadpan fall?Emily meets an imaginary friend, someone she calls "Charlie." Hardly farberized or "Fockerized," Emily grows paler, weirder, and more distant from Dad as she and Charlie fuse their own mysterious and increasingly dangerous relationship behind his back. When Emily and Charlie's childish games turn gruesome, and later deadly, psychologist Dad is left to find the hidden Charlie, or else face a homicidal daughter.

Though it came off an assembly line whose products we've seen many times before, Hide and Seek is the only American non-Japanspired American horror film worth watching since Dawn of the Dead, dare I say it, it had to be said, and even that was a remake. Now this is not to say that this film is great; it's just another serving of the same old hot sauce. No Blair Witch originality here. But it's still got that kick. Not the dripping-booger-in-the-cold kick, granted, but the always dependable don't-open-that-door kick, punctuating a wary tip-toe through a simple mystery to a simple surprise ending. It's even more fun if you're surrounded by pockets of big-boned high school jocks who up and kick your seat, laugh loudly at the jump scenes, provide play-by-play commentary, then chuckle some more. Yeah?ha!?that's real funny guys. Reeeeal funny.

Dakota, sweetie, pass the hatchet.

While the film's plot, predictability, and potency are easier targets than the proverbial booby bimbo running from her killer in high heels and a miniskirt, and just aren't worth hacking apart, you can't diss Dakota or her male adult co-star for performances that put the script on a stretcher and take it as far as it can go before the bones snap (Elizabeth Shue's in it too but just for the cleavage. Can't have a horror movie without cleavage). Screaming and gasping are not among the finer points of the Actor's Studio, but despite its mothballs plot, the film leaves enough moments of pregnant tension to release some of Dakota's strong talent?beyond the standard creepy-kid repertoire of staring and not smiling, that is?and that of this other guy. Oh, what's his name, some total B-actor, I'm sure, cause who else would sign up for a cheap horror film in January, of all things. Oh right, it's Robert DeNiro. Whoa. What's the deal, Raging Bull? Yeah, I'm talking to you. Didn't Meet the Fockers just make, like, a billion dollars? Were you that bored? Sigh. I guess he gets my respect for a defiant versatility. This and floppity flop flop 15 Minutes prove it: not all of a great actor's movies have to be as good as he is. Way to go Vito: standing up in the endless fight against the Hollywood legend's oppressive burden of quality. An excellent cause.

Speaking of excellence, if you're waiting for a prized 2005 release to contemplate over popcorn, see In Good Company. Otherwise, it might be a while. February is a time to shrug and submit to the mediocrity of Hollywood's awards season hangovers.

So in the meantime, bring a date or other hand to crush, find a seat away from the hooters, and brace for impact. You already know when it's coming. It's the twentieth time you've been on this white-knuckle roller coaster, and your umpteenth mouthful of this cauldron's family neuroses stew; but the ride's still a rush, and the brew is still hot. The whole formula still finds us somewhere deep and dark, even if we think that this time, we've hidden well.