The Haunting (1999)
Directed by Jan De Bont
Cast: Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Bruce Dern, Marian Seldes, Todd Field, Alix Koromzay, Virginia Madsen, Charles Gunning.
1999 113 minutes
Rated: (for violence, mild profanity, and a bloodless beheading).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 24, 1999.
A spooky, haunted mansion. Four characters trapped within the locked gates of the property. An 80-million-dollar price-tag. Can't miss, eh? Oh, but it can; just leave it up the hack director Jan De Bont ("Speed" is his one good movie, but what's his excuse for its sequel or "Twister?") to take practically all traces of character development, excitement, horror, and common sense out of what could have been a sort of horrifying "Poltergeist" for the millenium, and turn it into a tedious excursion into visual effects that never look very believable or threatening to begin with.
Loosely based on the 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson, "The Haunting of Hill House," and subsequently, the 1963 film adaptation, Jan De Bont has unwisely decided that this '99 version of "The Haunting" should abandon the previous film's psychological aspect in which you never actually saw the dangerous entity, in place of visually showing us a house that has come alive, thanks to spiffy effects. Believe me; it sounds better than the final product, which, when it all gets right down to it in the third act, is a hugely disappointing anticlimax that leaves you asking, "that's all there is?"
Eleanor Vance (Lili Taylor) is a lonely young woman who is coping with the recent death of her domineering mother, whom she has had to take care of for the past eleven years, and her older sister (Virginia Madsen) is threatening to take her apartment away from her. Finding an ad in the newspaper in which Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson) is seeking out insomniacs for research who will be paid $900 a week with free room and board, Eleanor eagerly signs up. Once arriving at Hill House, a heavily gated and locked, brooding mansion of epic proportions, Eleanor becomes in awe of the sheer size of the place, with the 50-foot doorways, secret passageways, people and animal statues, a walk-in fireplace, and a swirling room made of glass and mirrors that plays carousel music when the door is opened. Also showing up for the experiment is Theodora (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a bisexual artist and city gal; Luke (Owen Wilson), the comic relief; and Dr. Marrow's assistants (Alix Koromzay, Todd Field). What the group doesn't know is that Dr. Marrow is actually doing a study on fear, and has taken them to this creepy architectural triumph that has quite a twisted past to observe their reactions to any out-of-the-ordinary trick he plays on them. What Dr. Marrow doesn't anticipate is that the place really is haunted by the now-deceased past resident, Hugh Crane (Charles Gunning), who once murdered a bunch of children whose souls, to this day, are stuck within the woodwork of the house.
"The Haunting" has a great set-up. Perhaps too good, since it sets up the viewer in the first thirty minutes for a highly-anticipated funhouse of thrills and chills in the finale, which ultimately never comes. As Eleanor and Theo first meet and explore the monstrous hallways and rooms before the other guests arrive, not only is the film enthralling, but the dialogue is snappy and fun. We also see that there are many opportunities to be had if the house really is going to come alive by the end. Helping out the opening section is the extravagant production design by Eugenio Zanetti, which really is a sight to behold, and paints the house as a character all its own. Indie-staple Lili Taylor is the star of the film in one of her few studio pictures, the ravishing Catherine Zeta-Jones is present, and so is Liam Neeson. So much talent! And yet, the movie goes straight down the crapper after the aforementioned first act.
A day after seeing the picture, one main question plagues me: with such an atmospheric setting with so much obvious potential, how could director De Bont fail so miserably on every cinematic level? The middle section of the film is slow-paced and uninteresting (save for the only suspenseful scene in the movie, and the only "haunting" sequence in which we never actually see anything), and yet we stick with the film because we know that all hell is literally going to break loose in the climax. Well, the action, special effects and "horror" sure do kick in in the final act, but the movie somehow never takes off. Once a certain part would pick up speed, it would abruptly slow to a halt, and then jumpstart, and then stop again, and then...you get the picture. As for the effects, they are relatively underwhelming, never actually real-looking, and aren't used to their fullest potential. And, finally, the only horror to be present was from hearing the horrifically bad dialogue uttered each time someone would open their mouth.
Every actor in "The Haunting" is clearly above this mediocre material. Poor Lili Taylor, one of the most generally underrated actresses of today, is the only one given an actual character to work with, but as the movie limps to its end, she was gradually forced to say some of the most sickeningly cornball lines of dialogue I've ever witnessed ("Its not about you. It's about family!"). I'm sorry, but not Meryl Streep, not Jodie Foster, not the most talented actress in the whole wide world, whoever that may be, could get away with these lines without sounding ridiculous. When Catherine Zeta-Jones (so captivating in "Entrapment") enters the picture, I thought she was going to single-handedly steal the picture with her spicy character and dialogue. Not so. After 45 minutes, Zeta-Jones practically disappears into the background, running around without anything substantial to do or say. Liam Neeson, as in his lackluster turn in "Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace," is doing nothing but cashing a paycheck, and even Owen Wilson made no impression (I found myself more entranced by his oddly-shaped nose that actually looks like an inappropriate phallic symbol, since there was no actual character there to work with). And how about Dr. Marrow's assistants? Well, on the first night of the stay, one of them is hurt and so the other one drives her to the hospital, promising to call to let everyone know if she would be alright. You're never gonna believe this, but we don't hear from them again. Let it be known that the one assistant is played by Todd Field, who also appeared in the Kubrick masterpiece, "Eyes Wide Shut," and in this movie has a literal total of about three or four lines of dialogue! Here's another giant inconsistency: when the two assistants drive off, Dr. Marrow unlocks the gate with a key, but at the end of the movie when they are at the gate trying to get away from the angry spirits, he doesn't even think to use it!
"The Haunting" is one of the most misguided big-screen diversions to come along in some time, considering the clear potential it has. Here we have what could have been a creaky, scary, haunting, big-budget extravaganza, and yet, De Bont misses every single chance he gets to frighten us (well, ok, there was one scene, concerning a skeleton, that had the whole audience, including myself, jump out of their seats, but that was just more of a shock than an actual scare). Meanwhile, the actors stand around struggling to bring some sort of life to characters that are lifeless, and the audience is bored out of their skulls, unless they decide to make fun of the movie, which is a definite option to consider. What a shame! The tagline for "The Haunting" is "It's Summer. It's Hot. Time For a Movie That Gives You a Chill." Yep, at least they got that right. Its name is "The Blair Witch Project," and it was made for approximately 1/40,000 the budget of "The Haunting." So much for putting money to good use.
©1999 by Dustin Putman