I wouldn’t have expected Jan De Bont (Speed, Twister) to make a movie about ghosts. But if he had to make one, it would probably be the biggest, loudest, most special effects- laden ghost movie ever.
And so it is.
Did You Notice?
The Haunting is the second film to be made from Shirley Jackson’s book, “The Haunting of Hill House.” The 1963 version, directed by Robert Wise, is a surprisingly scary movie for its time (or for any time, for that matter). A well-written script and impeccable direction brought the audience under its spell, little by little.
This year’s version is not quite as good. It lacks the finesse of the original. Nevertheless, some of the chills are still there. After a melodramatically lousy introduction, Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson) brings a small group of patients to a remote hideaway, ostensibly for a study on insomnia. In fact, his insomniacs are subjects in a study on fear. The doctor hopes to observe the spread of fear from person to person, and among the group.
Nell (Lili Taylor) is the first to arrive. Her mother has just died after 11 years of infirmity that required Nell’s constant attention. Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a strong, solid woman who feels energized by her insomnia. Luke (Owen Wilson) is a good-natured, rational fellow who relishes being the only male patient.
Dr. Marrow sets things in motion by telling his subjects about the man who built the house, how he wanted children of his own, and how each time his wife got pregnant, the infant died at birth. To really give the house a haunted feeling, he tells them how the couple finally died of a murder/suicide.
Like De Bont’s other movies, this one is both good and bad. Both Speed and Twister were excellent ideas for movies, and the special effects sequences were great. But both had sub-par plot and dialogue. Likewise, The Haunting has some good ideas and some great execution, but pieces of bad writing taint it somewhat.
I already mentioned the melodramatic sequence at the beginning. The other bad writing comes early too. Dr. Marrow is “arguing” with a colleague about his study on fear. The “argument” is actually the movie’s exposition, crammed into about 3 or 4 lines of dialogue. It is written so obtusely that even Liam Neeson couldn’t make it sound good.
Also, Marrow’s character is badly researched and poorly thought out. His study on fear is completely unethical. No self-respecting, licensed psychologist would deliberately terrorize his subjects just to see how they react. Sure, those studies have been done in the past, but they have been all but banned by the profession.
Later, Marrow says that natural responses to fear are detrimental to coping with situations which cause fear. On the surface, that may appear to be true, especially in modern man, but an expert in the field of “fear psychology” (or animal behavior, or anthropology, etc.) should know better.
But once the movie gets underway, the house takes center stage, and nitpicks about bad writing drop away. The house is a huge, beautiful, gothic-looking thing. Every wall, floor, and ceiling is filled with rich texture. Sculptures, engravings, bas-reliefs, and mosaics fill every frame, and promise a rich playground for sprites and spirits.
The detail of the furnishings is impressive, but so is the sheer size of the place, as captured on film by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (who recently shot the verdant Fly Away Home). Figures are dwarfed by gigantic walls and huge, open rooms. Great paintings look down on the mortals scuttling about underfoot. The walk-in fireplace could consume a forest of trees. (The combination of huge scale, rich detail, and ominous mood reminded me of the best traits of computer games like Myst, Riven, and 7th Guest.)
Clearly the overall mood was successful, thanks largely to Deschanel, production designer Eugenio Zanetti (who designed the look for What Dreams May Come), and set designer Cosmas Demetriou. But the big question is: was it scary?
I think the 1963 version was scarier. For one thing, it never showed you any apparitions. The unseen, unexplained phenomena were terrifying. (The Blair Witch Project handles this very well, too.) You can’t show a ghost without making people think, at least in some small corner of their mind, about how the image was created. When you start explaining what the ghost is, or what it looks like, you move into a different area of horror movies altogether. Compared to the original movie, this one shows, and explains, far too much.
But that’s not to say this movie isn’t scary. There are scenes of unseen, patient terrors; invigorating, only-caught-a-glimpse scares; and some big frights with huge, loud noises and shaking, rumbling, bass. The horror wasn’t 100% successful because some of the frights were a little too obvious. But when that was the case, De Bont and editor Michael Kahn moved on, quickly and without comment, leaving just the good stuff in the fore of your memory.