Uh-huh, okay. So which is it... was the house a "bright happy home" until "something bad happened" or was the house "born bad"? Was Dreamworks SKG trying to have their proverbial cake and eat it too in their remake of 1963's The Haunting? If they can't even follow their own continuity within the two minutes or so a trailer takes to run its course, imagine what that promises for the 113 minute run time of the complete film!
And that's the real deal with The Haunting... it's remarkably inconsistent. While the overall result is, indeed, a pretty bad and melodramatic movie, it's hard not to notice how many good parts there are in this film. Screenwriter David Self seems to be serious about paying certain tributes to both Shirley Jackson's original novel The Haunting of Hill House as well as the exceptional 1963 film before he goes off on his own tangent! The film is packed with a very good cast and even features the production talents of Susan Arnold, Donna Arkoff Roth, Samuel Z. Arkoff and Steven Spielberg! That's not to mention the Effects talents of Phil Tippett and the Tippett Studio and the score by none other than Jerry Goldsmith!
The list goes on and on! And perhaps that's part of the problem with The Haunting! Whereas Bob Wise's orgininal film went for a true "Less Is More" approach, relying on suggestion, mystery and the unknown to provide its considerable thrills, there are so many chefs in the 1999 Stew of The Haunting that just about every high-quality ingredient money could buy wound up in director Jan De Bont's would-be classic, but a lot of these ingredients clash! All the talent was there, but the final product is a mixed bag with more ideas than fruition and more special effects than substance.
Leaving much of the back story until later, De Bont and Self start by introducing us to Eleanor "Nell" Vance (Lili Taylor), who is being forced out of her apartment by her sister Jane (Virginia Madsen) after the death of their mother. As in the original, Nell has scarcely had any kind of life outside of the home thanks to over a decade of caring for their invalid mother. Now she scarcely has any place (or idea where) to go.
Luckily, a surprise phone call brings her attention to a newspaper ad for a sleep study to be held by Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson, just off of The Phantom Menace).
It's hardly a catch, but this study for Insomniacs is to be held at a notorious mansion called "Hill House" which, ironically, appears to have been built on relatively flat land. What Nell doesn't know is that this isn't an insomnia study at all, but a study of fear in a really creepy place. Actually, I imagine there are a lot of things that Nell doesn't know starting with the way Moonlighting ended, but we'll run with this as it is.
The location for the study makes sense, too, considering the fact that Hill House is your proverbial "Big Corellian Ship" of all scary mansions, equally sharing traits with California's Winchester Mansion and Hogwarts! Trust me, if I were a ghost, I would most certainly haunt that place. If you've got to face life after death on Earth, why not do it in style? Amazingly, in spite of the sprawling size of the place (an actual mansion in Grantham, England) it has only two caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes). No wonder they're so grouchy! They'd better invest in a Roomba or two!
After running into those two clowns, Nell soon meets Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a beautiful, bisexual fashionista who is fascinated by the house and all its gaudy wonders from library lakes to mirrored carousel rooms to room-sized fireplaces and carved sculptures to rival the Parthenon, man! it isn't long before goofy Luke Sanderson (Owen Wilson) shows up to annoy and hit-on the ladies (especially Theo).
The quartet is soon alone in the house with all its creepy wonders, scary sights, unnerving sounds and creepy movements caught just out of the corner of the eye. But as Mrs. Dudley informs them, there is nobody for miles around after dark and thus nobody to hear them should they need help in the night. An ominous warning, sure, but for Dr. Marrow, this is just more fuel for the fire that is his Fear Study.
However, as you could guess from the previews, posters or even title of this film, there's a lot more to the house than implied terror. It becomes clear that there is something or some things truly frightening and wrong within the house's many walls.
Yes, yes, folks, that becomes clear really quickly. What begins as subtle and easy to dismiss as the usual creeks and creeps of an old, settling house becomes a prime example of the old "For God's Sake Get Out" maxim. Folks, there's a big difference between noisy pipes due to ancient plumbing and the animation of brass statues and elaborate wood carvings. The hints all point toward the man who built the place, Charles Gunning's Hugh Crain, a deeply creepy man whose photographs and portraits make him look a lot like Wolverine with a bad diet plan and indigestion.
Nell alternates between feelings of terror that kick her "flight reflex" into high gear and absolute fascination with Crain and his alternately scary and homey mansion. In the original film, Nell's constantly changing nature made sense, due to her strange discomfort and recent history. Though the newer film's Nell shares that same history, Taylor's character is much more melodramatic and fractured in her inconsistency, as if she was given a different script each day. Further, while many of the same tricks are used in sound and frights, there are a lot more cheap thrills than actual suspense here and quite of few of these simply don't add up.
That said, even though The Haunting is much more of a stylistic, CGI-infused thrill ride than it is a scary horror movie, there are some very impressive uses of CGI in the creation of some very scary images. None are too subtle and all are spelled out for the audience, but there are a great many scenes that would make beautiful screen shots. There are lots of melodramatic moments here (exceeding the original's few by a country cottage mile) but even I will admit that the acting is overall pretty good.
There is little question that The Haunting had a lot of potential and there are a lot of parts of the film that succeed at what they set out to do. However, There is no trust in the audience and no real attempt at subtlety aside from the quiet moments that set up the startles. Aside from the advertisements being misleading and confused, they also gleefully proclaimed "From the director of Speed and Twister", which should give a hint at the bombastic and wild content of this film (as opposed to the what the original and the source novel had to offer). This is something like advertising a remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as being from the director of Transformers and Bad Boys II! Folks, it just doesn't add up.
The original title for The Haunting was to be "The Haunting of Hill House", in keeping with the Jackson novel, however this was changed to the original film's title of The Haunting after the first previews debuted to avoid confusion with the upcoming House on Haunted Hill. That's just as well, considering the differences between this film and the original novel. The thing is, The Haunting isn't quite the movie that it purported to be, however, it is an entertaining and occasionally thrilling ride that can be a treat for the eyes, even if you owe your brain an apology for the experience. Two and one half Stars out of Five for De Bont's horrific remake. For all its faults and critical failure, it was a box office success both domestically and internationally. In short, like most "Big Hollywood" films of its kind, it did what it set out to do: Make money above all things. It's got its good points, but bombastic effects and explosive shocks do not a great film make. Chalk this one up as yet another Bad Horror Remake! So until The Innocents is remade as a Harry Potter-clone with giant robots, I'll see you in the next reel.
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Believe it or not, as hot as Zeta-Jones is, the original Theo might be even hotter!!
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