The Haunting (1999)

2 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

You know how Robert Wise’s 1963 low-budget haunted-house movie “The Haunting” was an effective chiller by showing very little while creating atmosphere, thus scaring audiences without the visible presence of illustrative mayhem? You want to see that effectiveness thrown out the window for a remake?

To start with this review of Jan De Bont’s 1999 remake of “The Haunting,” I probably can’t talk about this one without also talking about another horror film that was released the same year as this one—“The Blair Witch Project.” “The Blair Witch Project” was a little film that managed to scare audiences the same way Wise’s original “Haunting” did, with its same minimal concept: showing very little. That film was one of the most inventive horror films to come around in a long time, whereas this 1999 version of “The Haunting” is unintentionally silly, and unbelievably so. It’s amazing how far this movie misses the mark on why the original film worked as a frightening experience.

The movie starts out fine, strangely. The setup is actually well-done and surprisingly intriguing enough to suck us into the story. We meet our protagonist, Eleanor (Lili Taylor), who is more of an insecure person nearing a nervous breakdown than a mentally-tortured oddball like in the original. This surprisingly works, as Eleanor is a character with actual complexity and Lili Taylor does a consistently good job of playing her. Eleanor has spent years looking after her invalid mother until her death, and is now being thrown out of her apartment because of rights in a will. Not knowing what to do, she responds to a newspaper ad seeking research subjects for a sleep study at a secluded manor called Hill House. Run by Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson), the true purpose of the study is to study psychological responses to fear—he picks Hill House because the house is seemingly haunted and telling stories about its history may bring the response he needs for the study. His subjects are Eleanor, Theodora (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Luke (Owen Wilson).

While I’m complimenting the setup (except that this “insomnia-study” seems a little too contrived, especially seeing as how in the original, the people knew what they were getting into from the start), I should really praise the overall look of Hill House. The production design here is outstanding. The locations and sets look fascinating, and they’re definitely enough to keep our attention for good chunks of the film. There’s a particularly terrific scene in which Eleanor and Theodora explore a good chunk of Hill House and find all sorts of surprises inside. Everything is so rich in detail that it nearly (nearly) puts the original film’s haunted-house splendor to shame.

And one more thing to be said—the first supernatural occurrence that the characters experience in Hill House, with Eleanor and Theodora reacting to something forceful pounding outside their bedroom, is creepy enough. But that’s only the first one, and the film goes downhill real fast after that point. After a nicely-done setup, “The Haunting” takes a brutal nosedive into something unworthy of the original film. And the best way to start with just how much it doesn’t care about its predecessor is to mention the overall use of computer-generated imagery. It makes its first appearance midway through the movie, as we experience all kinds of ghosts who make all kinds of appearances to frighten Eleanor, such as a face appearing in a pillow. And from that point, the film has lost me. It gives us wall-to-wall CGI effects (and particularly bad CGI too) and also thrusts us into a badly-written, horribly-crafted second half that only gets sillier and sillier.

Has director Jan De Bont (“Speed,” “Twister”) ever heard of subtlety? I mean, come on—really? Did he really think that “The Haunting” would be more effective if he just showed what the original film didn’t? This was his biggest mistake for the film—showing all, making it all lose credibility once the effects start to pop up. And it only gets worse with a story that somehow involves Eleanor having some sort of connection with the ghosts (or rather, the cheap-looking “good ghosts” whose only purpose is to chant Eleanor’s name in singsong and whisper “solemnly” for her to “find” them) and the other characters (Markway, Theodora, and Luke) are amazingly slow to catch on, and then when they do, all sorts of crazy things happen—crazy enough to make us laugh sometimes. But I couldn’t laugh; I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Lili Taylor, like I said, does a consistently good job at playing Eleanor, and Catherine Zeta-Jones does fine as Theodora (though to add to the non-subtlety that the movie offering, the character’s possible bisexuality, only implied in the original, is…not so implied; in fact, it’s blatantly obvious, though I guess it had to do as much as possible to exploit Zeta-Jones’ body). But Liam Neeson is stiff as a board and Owen Wilson is given nothing to do, except point out what is happening right in front of us (I miss Russ Tamblyn’s one-liners).

The ending is the biggest slap to the original film’s face. If you thought the film was bad enough already, this is just horrible. The psychological tension of the original film is thrown out the window for more CGI, more crappy storytelling, and bad filmmaking. It’s just dumb, dumb, dumb. To call it a disappointment would be understating it.

The original Robert Wise film “The Haunting” is my personal favorite horror film, which is why it hurts me to find just how much this remake doesn’t work. “The Blair Witch Project” shows more respect towards the original than this film does. That film at least left its scary aspects to the viewer’s imagination, which made it scarier because it was what we didn’t see rather than what we did. Maybe Jan De Bont should have thought of that before showing and telling all.

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