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The Haunting

Review by Eddie Cockrell
Posted 23 July 1999

  Directed by Jan De Bont

Starring Liam Neeson,
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson,
Lili Taylor, Bruce Dern,
and Marian Seldes

Screenplay by David Self,
from the story
"The Haunting of Hill House"
by Shirley Jackson

A number of months ago, Liam Neeson caused a minor ripple in the entertainment constellation when he seemed to hint at retirement in a magazine interview. At the time the culprit was assumed to be the deleterious effects of acting in empty rooms opposite blue screens in the service of George Lucas’ vision for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The release of this overblown technical exercise -- a new nightmare from Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks -- puts Neeson’s remarks in clearer focus: having your name and face associated with this cold, disjointed, lavish yet astonishingly perfunctory enterprise would prompt the sturdiest of men to consider another line of work.

In his zeal to study the nature of fear, Neeson’s stodgily intense Dr. Jeffrey Marrow makes the tragic decision to fool a number of people in to spending some time in a huge country manor thought to be haunted by the ghost of it’s builder, textile magnate Hugh Crain. There’s the confidently beautiful and openly bisexual Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), wide-eyed slacker Luke (Rushmore co-writer Owen Wilson) and the emotionally frail, spinsterish Eleanor (Lili Taylor). Of the three, only Eleanor is given a prologue: having recently spent many years caring for her invalid mother, she’s been unceremoniously dismissed by her sister’s boorish family. Thus in search of some love and security of her own, Nell, as she likes to be called, is the perfect receptor for the spirits who make themselves known almost immediately upon arrival and reveal a supernatural game of cat-and-mouse which has been ongoing for a century.

Adapted from a well-known short story by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting is also a remake of the modest but genuinely creepy 1963 film directed by workmanlike industry veteran Robert Wise, who counts among his many credits the editing of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and Oscars for the helming of West Side Story and The Sound of Music. The earlier film was shot in England on a very low budget, and such hints as Eleanor’s obviously foreign car (mischievously, in the new movie Nell drives a Gremlin) and a briefly glimpsed "To Let" billboard suggest much of the location filming was done on the fly. Yet for all the restrictions penny-pinching can impose, Wise -- who broke into the movie business as a sound editor -- had a clear vision of what he wanted to do for the dramatic audio track. "I decided to use a playback system," he explained, "the same kind of system a director would use on a musical during the song or dance numbers. We had all these things that the actors had to react to, outside the door and what not. I knew I didn’t want a prop man banging on something. The sound effects really had to work because they were so basic to what the actors’ reactions would be." As a result, the film retains much of its visceral power today: Wise’s cast looks scared out of their wits.

This new version visualizes what was left to the imagination, stripping the story of all mystery and tension. In its place is the kind of cheap terror that finds people jumping at their reflections in mirrors, bumping into one another in dark hallways and being victimized by intricate special effects (which can and do rear up at any moment and are thus frightening only by default). Additionally, the story has been fatally retooled into a good vs. evil morality play, resulting in the original’s subplot of the doctor’s skeptical wife charging in for a visit and disappearing in the bowels of the house being swapped with some nonsense about the souls of the children who expired in Crain’s sweatshop manifesting themselves to Nell as wraiths under sheets and ornately carved wooden heads come to life. Even the mood-setting narration, lifted almost directly from the story and used to chilling effect in the original film, has been jettisoned for no apparent reason (some changes are just trivial: all character names are the same save Neeson’s, which was Markway in the story and first film).

Much has been made of the house and it’s elaborate trappings. Ironically, the exteriors were shot at England’s Harlaxton Manor in Grantham, Lincolnshire (Wise filmed about ten miles from Stratford-on-Avon). As impressive as the sets strive to be (they were shot in the same Long Beach, California facility which at one time housed another folly, Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose -- the airplane too heavy to fly), they’re so tidy and well-lit that the cumulative effect is of scale out of proportion to story, an airplane hangar turned knickknackatory with no purpose other than to overwhelm with size. That Hollywood can do.

The fake feel of the sets isn’t helped at all by director Jan De Bont (Twister), who, faced with a house moving around people instead of people moving around a house, seems to be confused about where to place his actors and put his camera. A former cinematographer with a genuine gift for pace and movement (the name of his first film describes his style: Speed), De Bont has reverted to cruise control. This feeling spills over into the performances. Perhaps contemplating his pension, Neeson is gruff and distracted; Zeta-Jones seems nervous and apprehensive beneath her slinky bravado; and only Wilson, by virtue of the slacker nature of his character (played memorably by Russ Tamblyn in the original as a cynic more interested in the value of the house on the real estate market), strikes an authentic note of eccentricity laced with fear. But the actor least served by the material and De Bont’s approach to it is the luminous Taylor, a genuinely gifted and endlessly fascinating presence who here makes the righteous mistake of apparently doing exactly what her director instructed. Thus, the mawkish sincerity of Julie Harris’ vulnerable Nell in the original is magnified to fit the absurd scale of the remake and many of Taylor’s speeches, crafted by hapless adapter David Self, contain unintentional howlers (particularly in her buzzword-laced final showdown with the spirit of Hugh Crain). The only one of the quartet who actually seems to be working, Taylor gives a ferociously intense performance with nothing to support it.

Typical of this tonal miscalculation, there’s a telling early sequence in the movie where Marian Seeds’ caretaker recites her menacing rules regarding nighttime service in the house. It’s one of the few speeches preserved from the book and first film, serving to set a palpable sense of foreboding. Here the exact same lines are played for genuine laughs, proving once again that the movies don’t change, the audiences do. If such flagrant dumbing-down is tolerated, they’ll be more of it; the good news is apparently preview audiences across the country have laughed it off the screen (at least one such raucous bunch did, shining promotional pocket flashlights at the screen while groaning with disbelief), and the early reviews have been blistering.

In the end, this empty house will provoke no retirements. Neeson’s apparently staying in the biz, and De Bont will next produce Minority Report for director Spielberg and star Tom Cruise. If there’s any point at all to this large, loud fiasco, it may be to guide viewers to the original, a little movie from a very different time that will leave you not pummeled, but genuinely unsettled.

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