Moviegoing confusion hit an all-time low back in 2002, when The Mothman Prophecies and Dragonfly were released within weeks of each other. Mere months later, most audiences couldn't remember if they had seen the crappy paranormal-suspense flick with an entomology-inspired title and Richard Gere, or the crappy paranormal-suspense flick with an entomology-inspired title and Kevin Costner.

The same confusion hovers over Hide and Seek and Alone in the Dark, comparably monikered creep-fests that were both released Jan. 28, 2005. This time, however, films that sound nearly identical actually represent two distinct flavors of tripe.

Hide and Seek is one of those tricked-out psychological thrillers in which only the psychologist can't spot the tricks. Robert De Niro sleepwalks through yet another performance as David Callaway, a meek mental-health specialist with a wife (Amy Irving) who commits suicide a handful of minutes into the picture. (Smart girl!) This unspeakable tragedy has a limited effect on our mild-mannered hero, but it traumatizes his daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning), a previously well-adjusted giggle monster who witnesses the gory deed and instantaneously becomes a dour, withdrawn Goth-ette straight out of Lemony Snicket II. Emily also gets a new imaginary playmate, an ominous-sounding character named Charlie whose "appearances" coincide with all manner of household mischief. Dolls are mutilated, cats are killed, and the reaction-deficient David disciplines suspected culprit Emily by raising the occasional eyebrow really high.

20th Century Fox has announced that the movie's final reel is being shipped to theaters separately, to preserve the effectiveness of the "shock" ending. Should FedEx stiff your multiplex, you can achieve closure by striding to the nearest video store and renting Secret Window, The Shining, The Amityville Horror or any of the other genre source materials that Hide and Seek reassembles into a predictable pastiche. The biggest "shock" here is wondering what bizarre mating ritual helped De Niro and Irving birth a child young enough to be their granddaughter.

Alone in the Dark is far brassier, laying its video-game origins on the table in an opening text crawl that tells an arcane back story about some vanished race that once loosed an extra-dimensional menace on the world. Compared to this shamelessly wordy account, the preamble to any Star Wars movie is a freakin' haiku. Utterly lost by its end, you can just sit back and let yourself be hijacked by the movie's outrageous dialogue, hyperventilating performances and all-around commitment to overkill: Protagonist Edward Carnby (Christian Slater) is not just a paranormalist, and not just a renegade paranormalist, but an amnesiac renegade paranormalist. Yes, the Bush economy is forcing everybody to take on extra work. Witness poor co-star Tara Reid, whose role as an archaeologist (!) cruelly forces her to feign a basic facility with the English language.

Together, these unappetizing young lovers crack the mystery of the aforementioned creatures from beyond, who when they arrive on the scene look like H.R. Giger's Alien as animated on the cheap by Ray Harryhausen. Their coming, though, portends the movie's devolution into a standard shoot-'em-up that trades thematic audacity for rote carnage. Instead of paying attention to what was happening on the screen, I spent the last half-hour or so counting the days until Boogeyman opens. I think Costner's in that one, but don't quote me.


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