poster.jpg - 9169 Bytes The Haunting

** 1/2 Stars

(USA 1999) Rated R

Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson

Directed by Jan DeBont
Writing credits: Shirley Jackson (novel), David Self

DreamWorks * 125 minutes

THE HAUNTING, Jan De Bont's remake of the 1963 film THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, itself adapted from a Shirley Jackson story, has been preceded by some of the best trailers I've ever seen. At the very least, the prerelease promotion promised a film with some terrific visuals. From that standpoint, it delivers, and I'm not just talking about Catherine Zeta-Jones. But in a summer that will be remembered for heat, drought, and effects-driven popcorn flicks, that's enough.

Hill House is a huge gingerbread relic, built 130 years ago by textile baron Hugh Crain for his wife and the children they desperately wanted but would never have. Instead it was filled with tragedy, and the house remained uninhabited, tended only by a caretaker (Bruce Dern at his creepiest) and his wife (Marian Seldes, doing yet another intrerpretation of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN's Frau Blucher).group.jpg - 27624 Bytes Liam Neeson, a subtle and laid-back actor who in this film has unfortunately returned to his DARKMAN scenery chewing, is Dr. David Marrow, a psychologist of sorts who has chosen the strange mansion to study three people's reaction to fear, under the pretext of a sleep disorder study. His three subjects:

  • Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a gorgeous bisexual out of a Howard Stern fantasy who at least appears to be at least marginally a Jewish princess (and hearing the Welsh Jones say the word "shlep" alone is worth the price of admission);
  • Luke (Owen Wilson), the resident smartass who first suspects that more than a sleep study is going on (and who, in the face of two obviously more intelligent women, is the first to notice that a huge, Moroccan-Gothic mansion fraught with gargoyles is hardly the place for a sleep study)
  • Nell (Lili Taylor), a sensitive, spinsterish young woman who seems less intimidated by the overall weirdness of the mansion than the others, perhaps because of a life spent caring for an invalid mother.

girls.jpg - 23495 BytesWhy the group was warned that no one stays in the house "in the the dark," as the housekeeper says, soon becomes clear, as the special effects kick in. And some truly fine effects they are. Spinning floors, frescoes that come to life, faces that appear in the sheets (that'll teach you to eat pepperoni pizza -- or go see THE MUMMY -- before going to bed).

lili.jpg - 29521 BytesVisually, THE HAUNTING is a gluttonous feast, which is a good thing, because in every other way, it's quite a mediocre film. It's not terribly scary, indeed there is only one good "jump" moment; and the story is in places incoherent. But perhaps the greatest mystery is how two A-list actors and one who looks so good you don't care if she can act, can spend a film shoot spouting dialogue that sounds like something that ought to be skewered by Tom Servo and Crow on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Indie stalwart Lili Taylor (HOUSEHOLD SAINTS, I SHOT ANDY WARHOL) is a wonderful actress who is far too strong a presence to be credible as the fragile, spinsterish Nell. At times it's painful listening to her say her lines. Owen Wilson, who would be perfect casting as Beavis to brother Luke's Butthead if a live action version of Mike Judge's cartoon is ever made, actually fares better, as the jaded, skeptical surfer boy who is supposed to provide romantic tension with Catherine Zeta Jones' butch-with-flowing-hair tough broad, but doesn't.

The true star of THE HAUNTING is Eugenio Zannetti's Hill House, which is truly a triumph of cinematic visual arts. Even effects we've seen before look fresh and fascinating, and Hill House's Gothic/Moorish/Victorian massive rococo labyrinth is a place any of us would want to tour -- in daylight, of course; not in the the dark.

Is THE HAUNTING a mess? Yes. Is David Self's script aggressively awful? Sure. Do otherwise perfectly good actors put in B-movie performances? Absolutely. But when it's 100 degrees out, it's a moderately diverting visual spectacle that can save you a few air conditioning dollars at home.

(Watch for a throwaway reference to a "red room" (here pronounced "red-rum" -- a smirking reference to THE SHINING, which director Jan DeBont has clearly seen one too many times.)

THE HAUNTING official site

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti except where indicated as copyright of the author. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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