ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 29, 1999
I remember seeing the original Haunting when I was a kid, and it scared the stuffing out of me, mostly because of what director Robert Wise didn’t show in his 1963 haunted-house study. The scene I recall most vividly is that of a terrified Julie Harris and Claire Bloom sitting bolt upright in a huge bed in the dead of night while someone—or something—pounded relentlessly on their thick wooden door. Wise and his stable of superlative actors brought to life Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, and by the time the film’s narrator quoted those famous last words from the novel—“whatever walked there, walked alone”—it was time to go to bed and pray that my own bedroom door didn’t start pounding.
Judging by the smattering of grey-haired old ladies at a recent matinee screening of director Jan De Bont’s new version of The Haunting, I wasn’t the only one hoping for a renewal of the spine-tingling buzz I got 30-some years ago. Unfortunately, in these days of overinflated budgets and computer-generated special effects, subtlety is a lost art. And the bombastic overkill that helped make De Bont’s Speed 2 the most disappointing sequel of the decade is in full bloom here.
In De Bont’s update, Liam Neeson stars as a research psychologist who lures three people to the sprawling and forbidding Hill House for what he tells them is a sleep-disorder study. What the two-faced doc is really undertaking is an experiment in the psychology of fear, and his unwitting subjects are the sheltered and vulnerable Nell (Lili Taylor), the cynical and wisecracking Luke (Owen Wilson), and the exuberant and babe-a-licious Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
After being curtly shown their rooms and cryptically warned about the place by a deranged-looking servant (Marian Seldes), then chained in for the night by her cosmic hubby-caretaker (a wasted Bruce Dern), the three guinea pigs and their ringmaster soon find themselves at the mercy of the fanciest visual effects Hollywood can buy. Ornate fixtures come to threatening life, decrepit metal staircases lose their screws, and the expressions on carved-wood faces switch from solemn to freaked. But most of it is just high-tech wanking; the movie’s only real scare—which caused me and several other viewers to jolt in our seats—results from that old skeleton-comin’-at-ya gag.
When filming The Haunting’s climax, De Bont must have had a Twister flashback, because he went totally overboard with a virtual windstorm of ghost-on-the-rampage simulations. By physically exposing all of Hill House’s sinister innards, he’s left us with nothing to think (and worry) about when the lights go out at night.