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Review: The Haunting (1999)

Updated on March 6, 2013

Director: Jan De Bont
Cast: Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Bruce Dern, Marian Seldes

Synopsis:

Brought to the ornate Gothic Hill House mansion under the false pretense that they will be participating in an experiment of sleep deprivation, insomniacs Nell (Lili Taylor), Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Luke (Owen Wilson) are actually guinea pigs in a fear study orchestrated by a Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson). How ironic that in conducting his study in fear, Dr. Marrow chooses to have the experiment take place in a house haunted by a rich child murderer and his many victims. Based, extremely loosely, on the excellent 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

What's Good About the Movie?:

Quite frankly, the best thing about The Haunting is its look. When Nell and Theo first arrive at the house, they go exploring the many rooms and corridors of the house. “It's like Charles Foster Kane meets the Munsters or something,” Theo exclaims. That sounds about right. There are hidden rooms behind book cases, a walk-in fireplace, and a secret playroom that's like a cross between a merry-go-round and a house of mirrors. The production design by Eugenio Zanetti, art direction by Martin Laing, Jonathan Lee, Troy Sizemore, and Tomas Voth, and cinematography by Karl Walter Lidenlaub are so terrific that for a good hour or so, the movie is fun to watch just to marvel at the set-pieces and location work.

Some of the performances are fairly decent. Owen Wilson may not be given much of a character to play, but he has some of the best lines in the film, and he delivers them with a laid back charm. Catherine Zeta-Jones brings a real sex appeal in the earlier moments as the bi-sexual Theo, who seems to be making one too many googly eyes as Nell (although nothing ever comes of that subplot), but she's relegated to the background as the movie wears on. Liam Neeson has a lot of fun with the role as the unethical Dr. Marrow, and I loved the scene in the beginning where he argues with his superiors about the importance of his experiment and bringing the patients in under false pretenses (“You don't tell the rats they're in a maze,” he argues). But like Zeta-Jones, he's pretty much relegated to the background as the movie wears on. He's a talented actor, and should not be wasted on such a thankless role.

Now for the main question: Is the movie scary? There is one scene early on where Nell and Theo are harassed by an unseen evil lurking outside their bedroom doors that is kind of suspenseful. It uses the less is more approach, and is the only time in the film when said approach is used. There is also one decent jump scare involving a prop skeleton jumping out of an ash dump in the fireplace. Other than that, this movie is not even sort of scary.

The Haunted Mansion in "The Haunting"
The Haunted Mansion in "The Haunting"

What's Bad About the Movie?:

In spite of the noble efforts from the actors, the characters in The Haunting don't work. At all. For starters, they are all horror movie archetypes. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the Slutty One, Owen Wilson is the Comic Relief, Lili Taylor is the Helpless Damsel, and Liam Neeson is the Scientist. There's not much more brought to their characters than that. The only character who receives at least mild backstory is Nell, and unfortunately, the unquestionably very talented but badly miscast Lili Taylor turns in a bland and one-note performance playing her (although given some of the dialogue she's made to utter in the film, I can assure you that her subpar work here is anything but her fault).

And like most horror movie characters, everyone here behaves like absolute idiots virtually from the word go. Earlier in the film, Dr. Marrow arrives at the house with two of his assistants. When one of them is thwacked in the eye by a razor sharp wire, the other assistant agrees to drive her to the hospital, and Dr. Marrow gives the guy the only gate key he has. You know, just so he can let himself back in later on. I'm sorry, but if I was staying in a spooky old mansion, and the only way out was through a gate that was chained and locked by the caretakers at night, then I would not give away the only gate key I had. What if something else happens? What are they going to do then? Not only that, but once the two assistants leave the house, we never hear from them again. They said they would call to keep everyone in the house posted about the assistant's recovery, but it never happens.

Because Dr. Marrow gave away his only key to the gate outside Hill House, they have absolutely no options available when the supernatural elements start to occur. Nell is the first one to notice something is amiss in the house. The others thinks she's crazy, and when they decide to take her out of the house and to the hospital the next morning when the caretakers come by, the characters take watch over her while she sleeps in her room. “I'll take the first shift,” Luke says. Later on, the ghosts start attacking Nell mercilessly. The floors explode around her. The roof of her bedroom starts growling and coming down at her. Decorations from the ceiling shoot down and pin her to her bed. This is all very noisy, yet none of it gets Luke's attention until she starts screaming for help.

And while the scene where Nell and Theo are harassed in their room is effective, I found it difficult to believe how quickly they were able to dismiss the incident as a case of bad plumbing. It's true that when the faucets are turned on, a loud rumbling sounds reverberates in the walls, but how does bad plumbing explain the synchronized banging on the doors and the jiggling of the door handles?

Perhaps the only thing about "The Haunting" worth showing: The Sets.
Perhaps the only thing about "The Haunting" worth showing: The Sets. | Source

Prior to this movie, Jan De Bont made nothing but big-budget action pictures (the best is his debut film, Speed, from 1994), and the problem with his work here is that he directs it like it's another big budget action film. The original 1963 film managed to terrify us by the things it didn't show us. In this film, we see way too much. This is especially true of the film's climax. We see statues of children gasping in wide eyed horror. We see spectral phantoms materializing in billowing curtains. We see hands coming out of doors and the mouth of a creepy ghost's face. In one of the film's funniest moments, we also see the statue of a bird coming to life and attack our heroes, and Nell beating the thing into submission with...a piece of wood?

And while I hate picking on Ms. Taylor (she is, as I said, a very talented actress), she turns positively cartoonish in the climax. As I've also said, it isn't her fault. She's made to say and do things which no talented actress should ever be forced to say and do. The monologue she has at the end of the film is so poorly written that it's down right painful to listen to the words come out of her mouth, and the Christ-like pose she has in the end is so groan-inducing that I had to look away from the screen. It was too agonizing to watch.


Verdict:

All dressed up and nowhere to go. That pretty much describes The Haunting in a nutshell. The movie might have been worth recommending just on the basis of the look alone had David Self brought so much as an inkling of effort into his debut screenplay. But substance is virtually nonexistent in The Haunting. It's a shame to watch a movie with such compelling visuals, and have nothing compelling happen in front of them for nearly two hours.

Final Grade: ** (out of ****)

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