Rob Walker reviews The Haunting

The Haunting 113 min., 1999
Written by David Self
Directed by Jan De Bont
Language: English
My rating: ★★

Some movies are born bad.

* * *

Julie Harris, who played the defining role of Eleanor Vance in the original 1963 version of The Haunting, once admitted that the film might be due for an update.  To be fair, that’s kind of true.  While the gold standard in haunted house movies, the film was also a product of its time.  Gratuitous inner monologues, an overly buried lesbian subtext, and a stageplay style of acting dates the film to the early sixties.  Bringing this film into the new millennium wasn’t a bad idea.  Really, it could be a noble goal.  Too bad nobody knew what the hell they were doing.

This time around, the inexplicably renamed Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson) recruits three guests to stay at Hill House.  They think it’s for a sleep study.  But, really, it’s an experiment in fear.  Uh, twist?  This begs all sorts of ethical questions — which his assistants bring up – but the good doctor proceeds anyway for, um, “reasons.”  Enter three caricatures culled from a treatment for the original movie: Eleanor Vance, Theo, and Luke.  Once inside the cavernous halls of Hill House, they’ll discover a supernatural mystery so ridiculous, that it makes Scooby Doo look like Sherlock Holmes.

The acting in this film both confounds and annoys.  And yet it’s almost entertaining — kind of like a bad American Idol audition.  Liam Neeson seems perpetually confused as Dr. Marrow.  Depending on the scene, it goes one of two ways.  Is he that crazy, animated Uncle who gets a little too drunk by the punch bowl at every family reunion?  Or the mumbling, indignant guy who scratches his head when served the wrong plate of food at The Red Lobster?  Either way, it’s a shame.  I’ve seen him act — but here?  Sigh.  Moving on…  Lili Taylor is more than this film deserves.  She tries desperately to make the best of her role as Eleanor.  Unfortunately, her whispered earnestness comes off like the flaxseed loving lady who passes out those free Chakra cleansing coupons at the Whole Foods.  Owen Wilson, meanwhile, stretches himself and plays Luke as a man who looks and sounds a lot like Owen Wilson.  Really, the resemblance is uncanny.  He’s supposed to be an insomniac.  He accomplishes this feat by squinting and wandering his way across the set like an underpaid extra in search of the catering table and its inexhaustible supply of Doritos.  And then there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones.  She plays the insanely complex role of Theo.  Theo is – ready for this? – a bisexual.  No, seriously, that’s it.  There is literally nothing else to her.  For the record, I don’t mind characters “outing” themselves in a movie.  After all, this is the cusp of the 21st century we’re talking about.  But Claire Bloom’s Theo had dreams, desires, and motivations.  You know: character.  What’s Zeta-Jones’ motivation?  Not a clue.  Something to do with Prada boots and fab-fab-fabulous outfits, I take it?  Only guessing.

So yes, the acting runs thinner than skim milk.  But who can blame them?  Lest we forget, this was brought to us by Jan de Bont — a man more concerned about the personalities of his tornadoes in Twister than the actual characters themselves.  Why Dreamworks chucked this classic to De Bont is anybody’s guess.  It’s like handing over the reins of Disney World to the carney who runs the Tilt-O-Whirl at the County Fair.  Perhaps no one in the boardroom saw Speed 2?

To be fair, De Bont’s actual skill set is in cinematography, and there he earned quite the deserved reputation.  So at least his film is pretty.  Hell, it certainly fooled Roger Ebert into coughing up three stars.  Unfortunately, that’s also a problem.  For while the production design is lavish and colorful and huge, it’s also spectacularly phony.  Robert Wise’s Hill House felt real.  It was claustrophobic, cluttered, organic, lived in.  This feels like a theme park ride.  Bright, shimmering, plastic, and fake.  It’s the illusion of scares but totally safe.  But hey, those visual effects are stunning… in a Mario 64 sort of way.  Paintings come to life, pianos lash out, cartoon eyes sprout from ceilings, bedframes grow tentacles, statues attack, and creepy ghost children politely comb the hair of unsuspecting ladies.  Really, moviegoers wouldn’t see anything better until the advent of the Playstation 2.  Heck, maybe even the Gamecube.

So in the end, the ghosts are CGI, the scares are PG-13, and the script by David Self is so childish that R.L. Stine wouldn’t be caught dead reading it to preschoolers.

And perhaps that’s the biggest sin of all.  If the creative team wanted to completely trash everything that made the original smart, then the least they could have done is make this film freakin’ scary.  But the whole thing comes down to the Virgin Mother Eleanor screaming “This is about family!” to the grumpy spirit of spooOOoooky homeowner, Hugh Crain (played with some zeal by The Ghost Pirate LeChuck from The Secret of Monkey Island).  Oh, and wouldn’t you know it?  Little cherubs back her up and sing her praises on high.  I won’t spoil how any of this comes about.  Or what it means.  It has to be seen to be believed.  Sufficed to say, the whole thing is about as scary as Casper.

Which, really, may be the most frightening thing of all about this picture.

[EXPLANATION FOR THE STAR RATING:  For the morbidly curious, I’ll toss one star its way for the lavish production design and a decent throwback to the original with Marian Seldes doing a great update of the creepy Mrs. Dudley.  Otherwise, the only one who survives with any dignity is Owen Wilson.  Spoiler: He gets decapitated well before the movie ends, sparing him the final twenty minutes.  I should be so lucky.]

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