"The Haunting" is testament to the fact that well enough should be left alone. In 1959 Shirley Jackson published a quietly scary little novel, "The Haunting of Hill House," that Orville Prescott of the New York "Times" called a "superdeluxe ghost story." In 1963 director Robert Wise one-upped Jackson by turning it into perhaps the best haunted-house movie of all time. Then, for reasons unknown, director Jan De Bont ("Twister," "Speed") remade the film, pretty much avoiding everything that made the book and the first movie so successful--the chills, the suspense, the unseen terror--in favor of big-time special effects. OK, maybe the reason he did it was simply because he COULD do it. That is, he recognized a popular title and capitalized on it with all the new technology at his disposal. "The Haunting" should not be confused with the remakes of "The House on Haunted Hill" or "The Legend of Hell House," incidentally; but, hey, if other people are doing it, why not De Bont? In any case, the new film is gorgeous to look at and provides maybe a thrill or two, if memories of the older version don't interfere.
"Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone." --Shirley Jackson.
It's just such an atmosphere of subdued horror that De Bont misses entirely. Instead of letting the house, the dark, and the unknown create their own terror, De Bont forces every issue with overblown technical wizardry. The interiors sets were so big, in fact, they had to be constructed in an airplane hangar! Bigger is not always better, no matter how spectacular it may appear.
Like so many ghost stories, the plot of this one has a small group of people spending several nights locked in a haunted house. In the earlier movie, which was exceptionally faithful to Jackson's book, a professor was conducting an experiment in ESP to see if houses could really be haunted. This time, the professor, named David Marrow and played by Liam Neeson, is directing an experiment on the effects of fear on the human psyche, but he tells his subjects it's an experiment in sleep deprivation, insomnia. The change in script is beyond me. The subjects invited for the study are a sensitive, somewhat neurotic young woman named Eleanor Vance, Nell, played by Lili Taylor; a voluptuous, bisexual beauty named Theo, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones; and a cynical but pleasant young man, Luke Sanderson, played by Owen Wilson. The sinister housekeepers, the Dudleys, who "never stay after dark, in the night," are played by Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes. Although the sexy Ms. Zeta-Jones has gotten most of the attention for her role in the film, it is really Nell's story. It is she who is specifically and mysteriously invited to the house and she who discovers the old mansion's secrets.
But it is undoubtedly the house itself that is the main character, and herein lies the film's problem. Hill House, as conceived in this movie, is too big, too grand, too fancy, too colorful, and by far too beautiful to be scary. It's like being afraid walking down the midway of an amusement park. There are too few small, dark, confined spaces within the house to raise the hackles or chill the bones. In truth, the house is no house at all. It's a palace. It's so big the filmmakers could not find a suitable building in America, where the story is set, to do the exterior shots so they had to go to England to film at Harlaxton Manor, a huge, sprawling, early nineteenth-century gothic-rococo structure, formerly a private residence that is now used as a college. If only the filmmakers had used Harlaxton's interiors as well, the film might have been more frightening. Instead, the house's two-story mock-up interiors look like grand vistas from the imperial courts of the French kings or Russian czars. The viewer is too busy admiring the grandeur of the place to care that its walls are closing in or its ceilings reaching out. And little explanation is given to how a research scientist like Marrow could get the money to rent such an extravagant place; to say nothing of why such a castle is lying vacant and for rent in the first place.
Nonetheless, if one looks past the excesses of the budget and special effects, the film does have a couple of good moments. I rather enjoyed old Hugh Crane, the house's resident spook, coming out of the woodwork. It's a kind of fun-house ride, with a few kicks and a corny, contrived, and convoluted ending to spoil things. To be honest, though, the scariest scene for me was when Nell was sleeping with her feet outside the covers. Forget the Blair Witch. Has she never heard of the Bed Witch?
As I mentioned before, the picture is gorgeous to look at. The wide 2.21:1 aspect ratio is a necessity to take in all the film's spectacle. The colors are radiant, clear, and clean, maybe a shade too brilliant for real life. A few wavering lines, which will show up more or less depending on one's playback equipment, can sometimes be distracting.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is slightly bright, like the picture itself, but it is well detailed, reasonably well distributed to the back channels, and extremely robust. George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic and Skywalker Sound provided most of the visual and aural effects, and they are impressive, indeed.
In addition to the film, DreamWorks provide a twenty-seven minute featurette with behind-the-scenes footage, cast and crew interviews, and a few ghost stories of its own. There are also cast and crew biographies and filmographies, production notes, theatrical trailers, and one of the most creative animated scene-selections menus I have ever encountered.
This new version of "The Haunting" may not match the older one for shivers and goose bumps, but it does provide its fair share of visual splendor. So, if for nothing else, think of it as an audiovisual experience to impress your neighbors.