The Haunting (1999)
Some of my brothers and sisters in the movie-reviewer community were perhaps a bit hasty when they crowned Wild Wild West the summer’s worst film. Obviously they had not yet seen The Haunting, a needless remake of a solid (if a bit stiff) chiller from 1963. Both films are derived from an acknowledged classic of horror fiction — Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House — yet the remake deviates so sharply, and so stupidly, from Jackson’s simple and elegant story that the end credit mentioning her book is the final insult to her memory.
The premise is butchered right from the start. Liam Neeson, playing a psychologist rechristened “Dr. Peter Marrow,” lures three insomniacs to the ornate old Hill House for alleged “sleep research.” In fact, he’s conducting an experiment in fear on his unsuspecting subjects. In the book and 1963 film, the doctor is actually a ghostbuster who brought three people to live in the reportedly haunted Hill House with him, to see if anything would happen; there was no hidden agenda, and everyone knew pretty much what they might be in for. (Part of the wit of Jackson’s story was that none of the visitors took the Hill House legend all that seriously, until supernatural events proved otherwise.) In the remake, the good doctor seems to pick Hill House because it’s remote and spooky-looking — and thus a good laboratory in which to mess with his insomniacs’ suggestible minds — but apparently has no idea that it really is haunted. One wonders, then, what Dr. Marrow had hoped to do to provoke fear in his subjects. Rattle some chains? Put on a sheet and go “Boo”?
The subjects are Eleanor (Lili Taylor), a quietly frazzled young woman who took care of her ailing mother for years and now can’t function in the real world; Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a bisexual fashion plate who swoops around Hill House in new boots from Prada; and Luke (Owen Wilson), whose character was the inheritor of Hill House in earlier incarnations of this story but now has little reason to be there except to wander the halls nervously. Then again, nobody else in the movie has much reason to be there, either. They all seem stupid for falling for the sleep-research cover story, anyway — Dr. Marrow doesn’t even bother to bring computers with which to pretend to monitor their sleep patterns. (What do they think he’s going to do — stand over their beds watching them toss and turn?) Marrow also brings two assistants, new to this remake, who exist only so that the movie can have an expendable character who gets supernaturally wounded; the assistants are gone almost as soon as they arrive.
The best treatment of this material is still Shirley Jackson’s dreamy, precise prose, told almost entirely from Eleanor’s fraying viewpoint. (Put Sylvia Plath in the spooky halls of the Overlook and you’ll have an idea.) Robert Wise’s 1963 version was slightly starchy but still admirable in its refusal to show anything, its faith in the idea that a movie that leaves terror to your imagination is far scarier than anything a Hollywood special-effects team can cook up. Jan De Bont, the former cinematographer turned director who showed promise just a few years ago (Speed, Twister), has chosen the polar opposite approach, drowning The Haunting in rivers of cheesy-looking computer-generated phantoms. The spirits of dead children writhe and curl behind bedsheets and curtains, looking like Casper the friendly ghost. They also look very much like CG effects. $80 million didn’t even buy a convincing Hill House, whose exterior shots all look like models, and whose interiors also, whaddaya know, look very much like CG effects. The house is so vast, so aggressively set-designed, that it’s never credible as an actual house occupying actual space.
De Bont’s lowest-common-denominator method is nothing compared to that of the new screenwriter, David Self, who feels compelled to give Hill House a banal backstory about a vicious tyrant who built it using child laborers. Self compounds this error by linking Eleanor to the tyrant, invalidating the idea of the real haunting — Eleanor’s guilt over her dead mother — and rendering the movie pointless. We get many laughable scenes of bug-eyed cherub sculptures coming to life, and evil spirits roaring towards the camera. There is also, near the end, the most unintentionally hilarious shot I’ve seen since the idiotic Grandma waded through an acidic lake going “Ooh, ahh” in Dante’s Peak. Hint: When something lethal happens in the big fireplace, watch for Liam Neeson’s reaction shot. Everyone else is screaming in shock, and he’s just standing there like “Boy, that’s gotta hurt.”
When you’re not yawning at the digital ghosts, you’re watching a cast of fine actors dogpaddling in clichés and terrible dialogue; Lili Taylor, in particular, works overtime to make her nonsensical character credible, but even this great young actress has her limits, and if you saw her for the first time here you’d assume she was pretty bad. And since Jan De Bont fills the soundtrack with thundering bass noises meant to terrify us, we can’t even enjoy the movie as a retro, cheeseball haunted-house flick — the tone is too heavy. The difference between the minimalist scares of the 1963 film (well-timed thumps in the night that didn’t assault us in Dolby Surround Sound) and the new remake, with its theme-park demons that produce mostly snickers, is further testament to how far Hollywood has fallen. Anyone with enough money can employ state-of-the-art visual and sound effects; it takes genuine artistry not to need them. The much-buzzed-about Blair Witch Project, for all its fumbling and flaws, comes closer to the spirit of the original Haunting than this overproduced, overblown remake.