If you're taken to away to a remote, mysterious mansion, run as fast as you can in the other direction. Such is the familiar lesson of Boarding School, an atmospheric but not entirely cohesive horror tale. In 1990s New York, Jacob (Luke Prael), a troubled but sympathetic 12-year-old, is sent away after his stepfather finds him trying on his recently deceased grandmother's evening wear. We quickly learn that the ominous place where Jacob ends up is no ordinary boarding school -- it's overseen by an abusive couple and has only six other students. Jacob's peers are underwritten, presented as misfit archetypes: an overweight boy, a boy with Tourette's, a burn victim, and a pair of brothers who are given little to do. Christine (Sterling Jerins), the only girl, is the most complex character -- deranged and potentially murderous, but capable of flashes of charm.
While Boarding School might have taken on the aesthetic and structure of a classic Gothic tale, it instead is half-baked. The '90s setting doesn't add much, beyond the absence of cellphones and the license for Christine to sneeringly insult the boys as "retards." The film hints at queer issues (issues horror often potently addresses), but its psychological exploration essentially stops at Jacob dressing in drag and seeing some creepy, confused apparitions. The most effective scares come late in the film, when Jacob spies on the evil headmaster and winds up in a fiery showdown. The suggestion of the primal scene as Jacob, again wearing his grandmother's clothes, sees just how devious this place is -- and how little adults can be trusted -- packs the most memorable punch, though savvy horror fans likely won't be shocked.