The house is trying to tell me something...
In the summer of 1998, numerous film pundits and Hollywood agent types declared that 1999 would see a rejuvenation of the horror genre. However, this time, instead of the "Scream" brand of horror that has dominated the box office since 1997, with its well-scrubbed teens being relentlessly pursued by axe-wielding villains with questionable motivations, we would see horror returning to its roots, albeit in an upscale manner. Not only would the resurrection of horror be accompanied by a greater emphasis on supernatural elements, but there would also be attention paid to instilling higher production values than the typical low-budget treatment that horror has endured in the home video market.
One of the reasons for this announcement was "The Haunting" being greenlit by Dreamworks, the latest adaptation of the Shirley Jackson tome "The Haunting of Hill House" (the first was the low-budget, yet cult-favorite, 1963 William Castle film). At around the same time, "The Haunting" was joined by a number of other upscale horror genre entries, including the Bruce Willis vehicle "The Sixth Sense", the apocalyptic Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer "End of Days", and the religiously-themed "Stigmata". And just last week, the limited release of the ultra-low budget "The Blair Witch Project" defied analyst expectations with an unprecedented $56,000 per screen average in the New York and Los Angeles markets.
No one lives any closer than town... no ones comes any closer than town... at night... in the dark.
Despite all the hoopla over horror's return, it is evident that there is much to be learned about the art of scaring people, with "The Haunting" as a prime example. Despite a strong start and some impressive visual flourishes, the weak script sabotages most attempts to invoke fear, and it ends up being more silly than scary.
Don't you love it here? It's Charles Foster Kane meets 'The Munsters' or something...
Under the pretense of a research study on insomnia, Dr. Jeffrey Marrow (Liam Neeson of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace") gathers three individuals at a sprawling gothic mansion in the New England countryside. Eleanor (Lili Taylor of "Ransom" and "Girls Town") is a compassionate yet insecure woman who is grieving over the recent death of her mother, for whom she has been caring for in the past eleven years. Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones, seen recently in "Entrapment") is a flirtatious bisexual of refined taste. Finally, Luke (Owen Wilson of "Anaconda") is a young man who seems to serve no purpose other than to provide comic relief and serve as a possible love interest for Theo.
You brought us here to scare us, is that it?!
At first glance, the 'monster home', the work of a reclusive 19th century apparel tycoon, is a foreboding place. With its high ornamental ceilings, collection of sinister-looking statues, and pervasive death imagery motif, the test subjects are placed in an environment of high suggestibility, which Marrow uses to pursue his actual goal, the study of fear. Marrow further heightens their suggestibility by recounting the house's infamous history, which included the untimely death of the tycoon's wife. However, it soon becomes apparent that there are some supernatural forces at work within the house when a series of unexplained happenings, some frighteningly calamitous, begin to occur. The first incident sends Marrow's two research assistants (Alix Koromzay and Todd Field, seen recently in "Eyes Wide Shut") out of the house when one of them is injured in a bizarre accident. As the night drags on, strange noises are heard, ethereal voices call out to Eleanor, and unearthly apparitions are seen.
"The Haunting" starts promisingly enough, though the only character who is developed to any degree is Eleanor, with the rest being relegated to the status of warm bodies with pulses. At first, the strange goings-on are very subtly-done, and manage to invoke both a sense of dread and wonder, especially an effective sequence in which the two women barricade themselves into a room while an unseen presence bangs on the door. In the original "The Haunting of Hill House", director Robert Wise kept the ghostly inhabitants of the house out of sight in a similar manner, which helped to heighten the suspense. Unfortunately, director Jan De Bont (hoping to bounce back from "Speed 2") decides to show everything not long after this well-executed scene, sapping any hope of maintaining the spooky atmosphere. In addition, the usual suspects of fake scares are thrown in randomly, including the heart-stopping noises, the menacing hallucinations, and a skeleton that jumps out of nowhere.
Audience thrills are further diminished with a number of glaring plot points that don't seem to make any sense, or are inadvertently comedic. The most glaring is that the only thing stopping the characters from escaping the haunted house is a locked gate, which they attempt to break through during the second act. However, at the beginning of the film, they seem to have little difficulty in unlocking the very same gate when Marrow's assistants are forced to leave during a medical emergency. And while the mysterious housekeepers (Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes) are meant to invoke an ominous atmosphere, they end up being lame send-ups to the overused conventions of the horror genre.
And perhaps what is the most disappointing aspect of the film is the anti-climactic, and almost laughable, ending. Despite some impressive pyrotechnics and computer-generated visuals, the script ends up finishing off with a hokey conversation about 'family' with the house's malevolent spirit, with some overly-melodramatic camerawork thrown in for good measure. For a film that began so promisingly, the lazy fix-the-logic-by-explaining-everything-away approach is a cheap way to go out, and the net result is a disappointing mess.
About the only thing worthwhile seeing in "The Haunting" is Lili Taylor's performance. With a somewhat decently written character, Taylor handles the transformation of her character adeptly, as the compassionate wallflower slips helplessly into an emotional breakdown. It's a shame that towards the end, with her character's final confrontation, Taylor's immense talent is wasted on some cartoonish drivel that seems more at home in "The Mummy" than what is supposed to be a return to horror's first principles. As for the rest of the actors, there is little for them to work with, and they are quickly forgotten once the lights go back up.
Other than reams of visual effects and some spooky production design, "The Haunting" has little to offer horror fans, or even the average moviegoer. Those expecting bone-chilling thrills will wonder what the fuss is about, those awaiting horror's resurrection will shake their heads in disappointment, and those just in for a good time will have a good nap. Rarely scary, and inadvertently ridiculous, this remake of the classic horror film ends up crashing and burning in a cesspool of camp.