1999, PG-13, 125 min. Directed by Jan De Bont. Starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Marian Seldes, Bruce Dern, Lili Taylor, Virginia Madsen, Alix Koromzay, Todd Field.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 30, 1999
“It's all about family. It's always been about family!” yowls the unhinged Eleanor (Taylor) to one of the hoary phantasms (by visual effects master Phil Tippet) in the closing moments of De Bont's film. Gee, and all this time I'd thought it was about a haunted house. Silly me. Shirley Jackson's classic 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House gets the full effects-laden, end-of-the-century treatment from action director De Bont (Speed, Twister), which essentially means more computer-generated phantasms and a much, much louder audio track than Robert Wise's superlative 1963 version. Debuting screenwriter David Self has altered a few plot devices as well, but the final product remains more or less faithful to Jackson's storyline. Still, I don't recall the novel being so screechingly histrionic, and certainly Julie Harris' earlier take on the character of Eleanor remains the most affecting of the two films. With Taylor (and it should be said that apart from this obvious bit of miscasting she's one of the best independent-minded actresses out there), evil old Hill House doesn't rain blood, it rains estrogen. Lots of it. As a haunted-house film, The Haunting benefits greatly from some marvelous production design by Eugenio Zanetti (Restoration, What Dreams May Come), who has envisioned the spectral manse as a sort of carnival un-funhouse, where, in lieu of scary clowns and vicious jack-in-the-boxes, we have such trappings as an indoor scary-go-round and assorted halls of mirrors. Not exactly your typical spook show, yes, but impressive (and oppressive) nonetheless. With the imposing Hill House as, quite literally, the film's central character, the rest of the characters fall short of their marks almost by accident. Yet when placed against such a grandiose set-piece, how could anyone be expected to mount a proper attack? It doesn't work -- and does it badly at that. The basic storyline, that of researcher Dr. David Marrow (Neeson) inviting a trio of unstables (Zeta-Jones' campy, bisexual Theo; Wilson's insomniac swell Luke Sanderson; Taylor's mousy introvert Eleanor) to a much-maligned manse in order to study their reactions to fear and hysteria is set up well enough. Things fall flat, though, when Taylor emerges as the central character, interacting with Hill House's malignant history in an increasingly silly series of frightless escapades that have her chasing about the house's serpentine corridors after wispy kiddie ghosts and bloody footprints. Neeson, likewise, offers precious little credibility here, though Texas native Wilson (Bottle Rocket, co-writer of Rushmore) provides a nice reality check as he fills Russ Tamblyn's old shoes from the Wise outing. Effects-driven chills rarely work as well these days as good old-fashioned audience imagination (a fact firmly driven home by the breakaway success of The Blair Witch Project). Unfortunately, De Bont has wedged so much bang-pow drivel in his film that it ends up being about as tantalizing as a desiccated Gummi Bear. Bah, humbug.