The Haunting (1999)

The Haunting (1999)Synopsis: In this edge-of-your seat supernatural thriller featuring Hollywood’s hottest stars, a study in fear escalates into a heart-stopping nightmare for a professor and three subjects trapped in a mysterious mansion.

For over a century, the dark and forbidding Hill House has sat alone and abandoned…or so it seemed. Intrigued by the mansion’s storied past, Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson) lures his three subjects – Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Nell (Lili Taylor) and Luke (Owen Wilson) – to the site for a seemingly harmless experiment. But, from the moment of their arrival, Nell seems mysteriously drawn to the house…and the attraction is frighteningly mutual. When night descends, the study goes horrifyingly awry as the subjects discover the haunting secrets that live within the walls of Hill House.

Don’t miss the state-of-the-art special effects as Hill House unleashes its supernatural wrath in this latest thriller from the director of Speed and Twister.


The Haunting (1999) 6.5

eyelights: the gorgeous mansion. the aural quality of the piece.
eyesores: the cgi ghosts. the weak acting. the blandness of its tone. the lack of plot. Owen Wilson.

“The townspeople said they could hear sounds coming from the old house. Sounds of children.”

Jan de Bont’s ‘The Haunting’ is a motion picture based on ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, by Shirley Jackson. Produced by Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks SKG, this film stems from the project that Stephen King and Spielberg worked on years prior and which King transformed into ‘Rose Red‘. It also shares much in common with Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of the novel.

(Ironically, both adaptations of Jackson’s novel were given the short title of ‘The Haunting’ because they both competed with different productions of ‘House on Haunted Hill‘ and the producers didn’t want audiences to confuse the two.)

Like its predecessor, 1999’s ‘The Haunting’ wasn’t a success upon its release, barely recouping its production budget despite a large box office gross. It was also widely panned by critics and the Razzies had a field day with it, nominating it for five awards, including the tongue-in-cheek Worst Screen Couple award for Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Unlike its predecessor, however, it has not grown a cult following over the years; it’s largely forgotten now.

I first saw it when it was released on DVD way back in the day. I wasn’t terribly interested in it, but I worked in a video store then, and I felt it incumbent upon me to watch as many of the store’s holdings so that I could better serve our customers. I remember being disappointed with it despite having low expectations, and never felt the need to see it again.

But, having watched Robert Wise’s film recently, and watching all the remakes of other films, it seemed fitting to revisit this one too.

Well, time doesn’t always give one a fresh perspective: ‘The Haunting’ is still a totally underwhelming affair. There’s very little plot, the dialogues are awkward, the performances lackluster, and the scares not especially scary. And don’t even get me started on the overwhelming amount of bad CGI that is smeared all over the picture, staining it.

The only thing that makes ‘The Haunting’ remotely palatable is Hill House itself: it’s the most breathtakingly hyperbolic mansion, a sprawling, multi-leveled building with supremely high ceilings, massive staircases, ornate hallways, lavish rooms, and a variety of eye-popping gimmicks – and all decorated in an exuberantly gothic manner.

I wuvs it. It’s quite clear that all the production money went into making the place as impressive as possible. That worked. I give the picture extra points just for the wow factor. I was blown away by almost all of the shots. This is a good-looking picture – which is hardly surprising given that de Bont is a cinematographer turned director.

The money did not go to the cast, that’s for sure. Although Catherine Zeta-Jones was on a hot streak at the time of the film’s release, she wasn’t when the film went into production, Liam Neeson’s career had cooled off considerably since ‘Schindler’s List’, Owen Wilson was still a nobody and Lily Taylor was mostly an indie darling.

Although Zeta-Jones and Neeson inject ‘The Haunting’ with a smidge of charisma, neither are at the top of their game: Zeta-Jones overacts from time to time, and Neeson wobbles between an earnest performance and clear insincerity (the few times he’s called upon to laugh are incredibly awkward to watch – you can tell he’s not having a good time).

Meanwhile, Owen Wilson stunk up the screen with his usual artificiality. I’ve never been a great fan of his, but this was an early effort of his and his attempts at levity and cuteness were grating. As for Lily Taylor, who plays the picture’s central role, she just wasn’t ready for the big time; she lacked the inner strength to carry the part.

The money wasn’t tossed at the screenplay either. Although David Self (with uncredited help from Michael Tolkin) made a valiant effort at updating the setting for a modern, more sceptical audience, there are plenty of moments that simply don’t make sense in his screenplay. Further to that, the dialogues are frequently hampered by awkward attempts at humour.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

What I do like is that this Dr. Marrow is studying fear, not the paranormal. This makes more sense in our current society, where the occult is frequently disproven by science. These experiments could be fascinating – at least, it would be to students of human behaviour.

But that’s where my appreciation ends.

Unfortunately, his method is dubious: he gathers insomniacs and doesn’t tell them the real purpose of his research: “you don’t tell mice they’re in a maze”, he says. Why insomniacs? Who knows. He also doesn’t seem to have much of a plan: he just wanders around with the test subjects.

Further to that, there were a number of other issues that stuck with me:

  • There’s a scene when one of Marrow’s assistant suffers from a gash to the face and is driven away to the hospital by his other assistant. We never hear from them again, even though Marrow and the subjects remain in the house for another two nights. Seriously? Neither Marrow or the assistants check in?
  • At one point, our quartet finds “Welcome home, Eleanor” painted in red (Blood? Paint? Who knows) all over the top of the large staircase. Eleanor gets all jumpy and they begin to accuse one another of having done this. Really? Because surely one of them had the paint, the ladder and the time to do this?

…without anyone else noticing?

  • While looking for the others, Eleanor goes into Marrow’s study and decides to listen to his personal tape recorder. Naturally, it’s cued at the beginning of a significant recording – because Marrow no doubt felt that he would want to relisten to that one before recording again. How convenient.
  • The ending is totally different from the book. Coincidentally, Eleanor discovers that she’s related to the Hugh Crain, the wealthy recluse who built the house (and continued building it after his spouse’s death – in a twist on Stephen King’s version, which had the widow continue to build after the husband’s death).
  • Then she fights her great-grandfather’s spirit for him to release the children that have been haunting the house for years – in a massive explosion of CGI special effects. Because a modern film has to have an over-the-top ending – it couldn’t possibly be as subtle and ambiguous as the original.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Frankly, as much as I loved looking at ‘The Haunting’, I was bored sitting through it. I wasn’t engaged at any point, wasn’t scared one bit (not even creeped out), and couldn’t have cared less about its outcome. It’s just one of those run-of-the-mill Hollywood special effects extravaganzas.

Nothing more.

And, given that it’s based on what is arguably the greatest ghost story ever written, that‘s saying quite a lot about just how poor the film really is. So it’s not at all surprising that it’s largely forgotten now – or that there wasn’t even a sequel to it (while evenHouse on Haunted Hill‘ had one).

Story: 6.5
Acting: 6.0
Production: 8.5

Chills: 4.0
Gore: 1.0
Violence: 3.0

Date of viewing: Dec 1, 2014


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