Screenplay : David Self (based on "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Liam Neeson (Dr. Jeffrey Marrow), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Theodora), Lili Taylor (Eleanor Lance), Owen Wilson (Luke Sannerson), Marian Seldes (Mrs. Dudley), Bruce Dern (Mr. Dudley), Virginia Madsen (Carrie Fredericks)
It's been a while since someone has made an out-and-out haunted house movie. Not a jokey, campy ghoul fest ala "House" (1986) or "The Frighteners" (1996), but a straight, fear-doused chiller. As a matter of fact, the only memorable ones I can think of in the last 20 years are Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980) and Tobe Hooper's "Poltergeist" (1982). It's been that long.
So, along comes "The Haunting," based on Shirley Jackson's classic 1959 novel (previously filmed in 1963 by Robert Wise), and directed by Jan De Bont, the over-the-top action specialist responsible for the excellent "Speed" (1994), the mediocre "Twister" (1996), and the lackluster "Speed 2" (1997). In making "The Haunting," De Bont had two major hurdles to clear: first, he had to prove that his career is not in slow decline after his extraordinarily rapid ascent to the rank of first-tier action directors; second, he had to prove that he could hold his own in an unfamiliar genre, and withstand comparisons to other movies by directors like Kubrick and Wise.
In short, he had a tall order to fill, and he came through--sort of. In its first half, "The Haunting" is a decidedly effective, spooky tale of tormented ghosts in a huge Gothic mansion. Unfortunately, the movie loses its way when De Bont drops all pretenses of subtlety and allows the digital effects to run amok.
It's amazing how many chills he can generate with atmosphere and sound effects alone. In many respects, sounds are much scarier than visuals because they only suggest what's out there. When faced with a terrible creature, it may be horrifying, but at least you know what you're up against. To only hear the terror scraping outside the door or moving through the walls, creating that awful, gut-churning anticipation of what's to come, is infinitely creepier.
Some of the visuals in "The Haunting" do work, however: a few digital effects of ghostly children billowing in the drapes or crawling under sheets work nicely, as does another scene where a pair of windows turn into glowering eyes. But, since this is summer blockbuster season, a major, outrageous finale is in order, and De Bont delivers one that is as visually audacious as it is utterly nonsensical; luckily, it is not quite detrimental enough to undo the better, more restrained work that went into the first half of the film.
"The Haunting" tells the story of a group of people spending a week at Hill House, an enormous, 160-year-old mansion nestled away in the woods of northern New England. Dr. Jeffrey Marrow (Liam Neeson) brings three subjects to Hill House under the pretense that they are taking part in a study on insomnia, when in fact Dr. Marrow is conducting research on the nature of fear. The three subjects, all of whom suffer from sleep disorders, are Eleanor Lance (Lili Taylor), a woman of low self-esteem who has spent her entire life taking care of her ailing, recently deceased mother; Theodora (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an adventurous (not to mention bisexual) New Yorker; and Luke Sannerson (Owen Wilson), a sarcastic young man who immediately introduces himself as a "tosser-turner."
But, if there's a truly memorably character in "The Haunting," it is the house itself. Hill House is a marvel of production design, a $10-million set designed by Eugenio Zanetti ("Restoration") that is as huge as it is almost overbearingly elaborate (Harlaxton Manor in Nottinghamshire stood in for the numerous sweeping exterior shots). Combining everything from Victorian to Gothic architecture (one character describes it as "sort of like Charles Foster Kane meets The Munsters"), Hill House features hidden passageways, 10-foot exterior walls, a grand staircase, and a mirrored room that serves as a giant carousel.
The house is decorated with floor-to-ceiling paintings, enormous statues of lions and gryphons, and--creepiest of all--the faces of hundreds of children carved into walls, headboards, and banisters. These children, whose echoing, disembodied voices create the most genuine hair-raising shivers, haunt the house along with its builder, a terrible tyrant named Hugh Crain who harbors a dark secret.
The human characters don't fare nearly as well as the house, despite the fine line-up of actors. Neeson is surprisingly ineffective, perhaps because his character doesn't have much to do except bring the subjects to the house. Zeta-Jones once again plays a sexy siren, and, to her credit, she gives Theo more spunk and life than the character probably deserves. Owen Wilson is mostly annoying as Luke, a truly grating character if ever there were one; his main purpose seems to be making lame jokes and blurting out the obvious ("The staircase is falling!").
It is only Lili Taylor who truly gets a character to play. With the exception of a brief, dull scene involving Dr. Marrow explaining his project to a supervisor, Eleanor is the only character we get to see outside of the clutches of Hill House. It gives her an added dimension that works not only in terms of plot explication, but also in making her more interesting and understandable.
But, all of this is really extraneous to what makes a movie like "The Haunting" fun. Everything you need to know about it is in the title, and everything that makes the movie enjoyable is how convincingly it pulls off the idea of a house that is literally bulging with tortured spirits. For the most part, "The Haunting" delivers the goods. It goes on a little too long, its plot is somewhat muddled, and the ending is positively ridiculous; but, it has just enough genuinely creepy moments and jump-in-your-seat shocks to make you overlook De Bont's tendencies toward overkill in end.
©1999 James Kendrick