The first half of Jan DeBont’s remake of Robert Wise’ The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, does a pretty righteous job of honoring its source. The characters are lively and colorful, with some cute and pertinent new twists. Most impressive of all is Hill House. The setting for the title haunting is without doubt one of the most lavish, garish and beautiful edifices ever created for film – a Gormengast on a soundstage. Extra points for every scene just because of the setting.
Lili Taylor (The Addiction) plays the mousy little neurotic at the center of the tale. Extra points for anything with Lili in it, too. Come to think of it, the whole cast is first rate. Big Liam Neeson (Darkman, The Phantom Menace) plays a confused (and confusing) psychologist doing research into why human beings still get scared. That’s easy – so we can watch horror movies. Neeson gathers a group of insomniacs to Hill House as part of his twisted research. Joining Lili is Catherine Zeta-Jones (The Mask of Zorro) as a flamboyant jet-setting bi-sexual artist, and Owen Wilson (who has gone from being the “who’s that” guy in p-films like Armageddon and Anaconda to writing and exec. producing the great little comedy Rushmore) as a doofy guy insomniac. Even Bruce Dern, Virginia Madsen, and song stylist Lisa Loeb peek into the picture. Our group settles into the massive house as Neeson fills their heads with creepy tales of the history of evil industrialist Hugh Crain, how he built the house some 150 years ago, and the tragedy that followed.
It’s in the second half that the trouble starts, in more ways than one, as DeBont and first-time screenwriter David Self depart wildly from the source. As the nervous heroine learns more than even Neeson about the house, she starts to witness more of the haunting firsthand. Here things get confusing – the other characters go from thinking all the ghosts are in Lili’s mind to full-fledged believers battling the hyperactive ghosts without a blink. The transition is too abrupt, and while Lili goes off in different directions playing girl detective and would-be saintly ghostbuster, the others fade into prop-like nonentities.
With Twister, DeBont created a disaster film that acted like a monster movie. Here, he makes a supernatural horror film that acts like a disaster movie. This is the perfect anti-Blair Witch Project – a film so bloated and overproduced that after a few good frights and “busses”, it loses its power to chill, thrill or otherwise engage.
Everybody loves to points out the obvious fact that the haunted house is a character in every haunted house movie. As Roger Corman assured his nervous backers while making House of Usher, “The House is the monster.” Here, the house is a godawful ham, endlessly chewing its own scenery. Once the ghost of Hugh Crain literally comes out of the woodwork, the movie becomes a soulless f/x show, wonderful yet banal. The spectacle of a war with big scary ghosts is welcome, but this movie was supposed to have more class.