The terror of bad direction, editing and acting.
Not to be confused with THE HAUNTING OF HELL HOUSE, released in the same year, THE HAUNTING is the tiresome, overlong, yawnfest remake of the 1960 movie of the same name. The only reason it’s terrifying is that it illustrates how low the bar for horror movies has sunk.
Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson) gathers three people in a castle manor for an ostensible “insomnia experiment,” that is a front for his real agenda – a fear experiment. The three insomniacs are Nell (Lili Taylor, THE IMPOSTORS), Luke (Owen Wilson, ARMAGEDDON), Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones, THE MASK OF ZORRO).
The hardest aspect to accept – and which proves Jan de Bont is as insipid a director as George Lucas – is that de Bont has four A-List actors at his disposal, each of which has been vapidly written to bring personal baggage to the mix, but de Bont has no clue how to coalesce their performances into anything more substantial than ectoplasm. Ex-cinematographer de Bont has built his directing career on movies that make no sense (SPEED, TWISTER), but that have saved themselves by teetering on the edge of fun/ridiculous. THE HAUNTING falls over the ridiculous side and can’t get up.
From a novel by Shirley Jackson (The Haunting Of Hill House), David Self writes a screenplay so fraught with cringe-inducing dialogue, cardboard interactions and irredeemable plot contrivances that I’m surprised a script doctor didn’t pronounce it dead on arrival. The fact that de Bont forged ahead with this abomination that barely resembles a first draft – and made it worse – only proves that Keanu and Bullock and Helen and Paxton were lucky bastards.
It’s called Hill House, so the characters can sound like they’re saying “Hell House” every time they pronounce a little too much cheeky “eh” on the word “hill.” The mansion is overly ornate, purely so that special effects can happen all the time until our eyes bleed with the nonsense. Nell doesn’t spend five minutes in her room, decorated in Hieronymus Bosch Meets Antoni Gaudí when things start banging, moving, whispering, and generally just annoying me. Special effects aren’t “scares,” Mr. de Bont. Although by this time, I’m sure all the five-year-olds have pissed their pants. It’s tragic to think one young generation is going to grow up thinking this is the apex of horror movies, because they saw it in wet pants at age 5.
The “fear experiment” angle becomes completely obtuse when we realize Dr. Marrow hasn’t planted any gags or set up any false trapdoors or hidden recorders playing crying babies – he’s just telling them tall tales before bedtime with no cocoa and hoping “their minds will make up the rest.” Exclamation point. Actors who have nothing to do fade in and out of the first act (Bruce Dern, Virginia Madsen, even Todd Field – renowned That Guy background actor, who gave Tom the “Fidelio” password in EYES WIDE SHUT).
So the haunting is real. Or at least, the special effects are meant to be. And, like the original, Nell is at first scared of spirits trying to contact her, and then accepts her fate of becoming one with Hill House. She’s on an adventure, she says. Sure you are, spinster. Her grandmother is in the photo album and the ghost children need her and the skeleton is in the fireplace and blah blah– How did this movie get greenlighted?! There is some flesh-crawling flirting dialogue between Luke and Theo (if only they could’ve conveyed that through acting); there is Dr. Marrow being pulled into a fountain by a statue for no reason; there are secret passageways, an iron staircase that looks like a double helix for no reason, blood footsteps and dead children and writing on the walls and — it’s just a HOT MESS!
Liam Neeson brings the same intensity to his performance that he brought to his other starring role that year – as Qui Gon Jin in EPISODE I. How did this great actor suffer two of the worst performances of his life in 1999? Oh, that’s right, both these films were helmed by two of the worst directors in cinema.
George Lucas and Jan de Bont. Those guys are still out there. Now I’m terrified!