Haunting, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The original The Haunting, a low-budget 1963 haunted house film from director Robert Wise, is a chilling little movie that offers a primer in scaring audiences without graphic bloodshed. It's a lesson that has largely been ignored by filmmakers over the past two decades, at least until the arrival of this summer's The Blair Witch Project, one of the most innovative horror films in a long time. Now, along comes a remake of The Haunting, this time helmed by Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister), a director who doesn't known the meaning of subtlety. He makes the fatal mistake of showing and telling too much (although he keeps the blood-and-gore quotient low), transforming his movie's final half-hour into an unintentionally hilarious self-parody.

Hill House is an enormous, gothic mansion built on an isolated New England site in 1837. For more than a century, it has remained uninhabited, with only a caretaker and housekeeper to tend to its upkeep. Both live in town, 9 miles away, and neither will venture anywhere near the house after dark. It's to this locale that Dr. Jeffrey Marrow (Liam Neeson) brings a small group who have agreed to participate in an academic study he is conducting. They think it's about sleep disorders (each of them has a form of insomnia), but it's really about examining the "primordial fear reaction." Marrow intends to frighten them with strange stories and see what happens. His subjects are Eleanor (Lili Taylor), an insecure woman with a troubled past; Theodora (Catherine Zeta Jones), a frisky bisexual who brims with the self-confidence Eleanor lacks; and Luke (Owen Wilson), who is nearly as cocky and self-assured as Theo.

The first half of The Haunting is surprisingly absorbing. The story moves slowly, introducing us to Eleanor (the only character with any depth), then leading us on a room-by-room tour of Hill House as she and Theo explore its seemingly endless innards. They discover amazingly elaborate bedrooms and bathrooms, a maze of hallways, and a room with mirrored walls and a moving floor. Most doors are at least 15 feet high and creak and groan when opened. Stone cherubs, gargoyles, angels, devils, animals, and other assorted oddities can be found everywhere. Hill House is a peculiar place where fairy tale images mate with those from twisted nightmares, and "Charles Foster Kane meets The Munsters." Production designer Eugenio Zanetti and set designer Cosmas A. Demetriou deserve praise for their incredible work here.

Sadly, The Haunting's sole strength is in the setup. Once the characters are established inside the house and strange events start happening, the film's quality goes into a decline that becomes increasingly precipitous as the climax approaches. Only the first supernatural incident, with Eleanor and Theo huddled together as something rattles the locked doors to their room, is effective. The final 30 minutes are especially poorly done. The plot veers off into a series of absurd contrivances to explain certain events and the climactic struggle screams "Deus ex machina!" Not since Sphere has the audience been subjected to such a pointless and demeaning cheat. On the other hand, for those who choose to view this portion of The Haunting from a skewed perspective, these excesses offer an opportunity for a number of hearty laughs, few of which were intended or expected by de Bont and his screenwriter, David Self (adapting from Shirley Jackson's novel).

Okay, so we're probably not supposed to think too deeply about logical inconsistencies in a movie of this nature, but there's something in The Haunting that really bothered me. When Hill House's caretaker leaves for the evening, he chains and locks the gate. Why? It doesn't make any sense. What's even more confusing is how Dr. Marrow is able to unlock it on the first night, when his assistant suffers an accident and has to be taken to the hospital, but, once his own life is in danger, he can't get out. This isn't a subtle blunder that only nit-picking movie critics are likely to notice. Anyone who pays attention to the proceedings (admittedly, a sometimes-difficult task) will recognize that there's a missing explanation. Irrespective of whether the fault is in the writing, the editing, or both, it's an example of sloppy filmmaking.

For the second time this summer, the normally reliable Liam Neeson turns in a bland performance. His work here, however, makes his outing in The Phantom Menace look brilliant by comparison. As Dr. Marrow, Neeson doesn't have much screen time, but, when the camera is on him, he often appears disinterested. Owen Wilson doesn't fare much better, either in terms of exposure or effectiveness. Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta Jones, one of the hottest actresses performing today, does what she can with the potentially-electric Theodora until she, like Neeson and Wilson, is relegated to the background. She's got charisma, but not enough to steal scenes she hardly appears in. The only performer with a real opportunity to shine is former indie princess Lili Taylor. For the first two-thirds of The Haunting, Taylor gives an effective portrayal of an introspective woman gradually approaching a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, the melodramatic swirl of the ending envelops her, warping her performance into something off-key and cartoonish.

The Haunting cannot be considered a classically enjoyable bad movie because the strong beginning promises much more than the film ultimately delivers. Yes, it's possible to derive some enjoyment from the silliness of the climax and conclusion, but it's mixed with disappointment. One needs look no further than the 1963 version to understand how the same basic story can be done far more effectively. But, with so much money being poured into special effects, tension has been diffused and creativity lost. This film makes the common mistake of showing in great detail things that would be more terrifying if left to the imagination. As a result, the only thing disturbing about The Haunting is how discouraging the end product is.

Haunting, The (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1999-07-23
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1