movie review by
Gary Johnson


[click on photos
for larger versions]

Web site:

The Haunting
Early in the process of filming The Haunting, director Jan De Bont enthusiastically boasted to reporters about his new version of Shirley Jackson's classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House. He said his film would include all the special effects that weren't technologically possible when Robert Wise filmed the first adaptation of Jackson's novel in 1963. Anyone familiar with the novel or Wise's film should have winced at these words. Special effects have nothing to do with the novel or Wise's excellent adaptation.

However, De Bont and screenwriter David Self have revised the story as a showcase for digital effects. Never mind that horror movies--ghost stories in particular--rely much more upon what the participants think they might see than upon anything they actually do see. Look no further than another recent release for evidence of this point: The Blair Witch Project works by implying that something is tracking and taunting the lead characters. Its filmmakers understand that the most effective brand of horror resides within our own minds as a fertile residue left by what we think we might see. With De Bont's version of The Haunting, however, the horror becomes completely external--another version of the tornadoes that over-populated De Bont's own Twister.

Both Jackson's novel and Wise's film toyed with the idea that the lead character might have been responsible by way of telekinesis for some of the manifestations that take place at Hill House. But De Bont's version soon rejects that notion in favor of over-the-top effects that leave no doubt whatsoever that an horrific force is present. De Bont doesn't even attempt to recreate the great scenes from Wise's version, such as the scene where the lead characters huddle together in Hill House's sitting room while a powerful force pushes against a locked door. The door bends hideously inwards as the panels pop and crack. Instead, De Bont gives us gargantuan statues that move, carvings with faces that follow Eleanor, and a ghost the size of Godzilla.

Wise's The Haunting is not a subtle movie. It's filled with drastic camera angles and dramatic lighting that evoke a decadent gothic atmosphere. But in comparison to De Bont's new version of the story, the original version looks like a model of restraint. Wise's film adhered closely to Jackson's novel as it played with the conventions of haunted house investigations--the cold spots, the knocking noises, the muffled voices, etc. However, De Bont has little patience for traditional ghost story lore. He has even revised the story so that none of the main characters except for Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson) even realize they are in a haunted house. Marrow has put together a group of test subjects--who all suffer from insomnia--with hopes of planting in their minds the thought that the house is haunted. His superior complains that his test plan isn't ethical, but Marrow says, "You don't tell rats they're in a cage," without a hint of compassion. He will then watch and record their actions as "group fear and hysteria" begins to take root. Marrow doesn't believe in ghosts. He is simply using Hill House--an absurdly huge and distorted mansion--as the catalyst in his experiment.

Lili Taylor plays Eleanor. After caring for her seriously-ill mother for over a decade, she still wakes in the middle of the night, believing she hears her mother calling. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Theo, the hedonist in the group. She actually seems to enjoy her insomnia. It gives her more time to indulge in her pleasures. Owen Wilson plays Luke. He was chosen as part of the group because of his low scores on a reliability test. Dr. Morrow will confide in Luke, knowing fully well that Luke will then pass on whatever he hears to Eleanor and Theo. But the real main character is the house itself. Theo describes it as "Charles Foster Kane meets the Munsters." A marvel of set design, Hill House is filled with cavernous rooms. Bedroom ceilings vault to heights of 30 feet or more. Curtains twist and toss in the breeze. Hallways lead past a seemingly endless profusion of doorways. Main chambers lay waiting like Egyptian tombs. Fanciful rooms open like music boxes and rotate on huge platforms. Thanks to the production design of Eugenio Zanetti (who won an Academy Award for Restoration), The Haunting's sets will frequently leave you in awe.

Unfortunately, however, director De Bont has no faith whatsoever in the ability of ghosts to scare contemporary audiences. Like another movie recently remade, The Mummy, De Bont's movie is designed for an audience enthralled by video-game-like heroics. (At a key moment, Eleanor even picks up a sword and does battle with one of the statues!) Whereas the new version of The Mummy revised Boris Karloff's shuffling bag of bones and bandages into a leering, quick-moving sorcerer, the new version of The Haunting eschews the non-corporeal threats of Jackson's novel and Wise's novel for a profusion of deadly dangers. The results are simply ludicrous, particularly in the movie's latter half as the effects multiply in number.

The Haunting serves as an excellent case study in how special effects can actually hamper the imagination of the filmmakers. With all the digital effects at his fingertips, director De Bont and screenwriter Self discarded storytelling in favor of visual overload. The movie might suck your jaw to the floor, but not in horror--rather in stunned disbelief.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]