Review: Effects don't help un-scary 'Haunting'
July 23, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Clinton
(CNN) -- "The Haunting" first came into being as a book by Shirley Jackson, "The Haunting of Hill House." Its second incarnation, the excellent 1963 film "The Haunting," starred Julie Harris and Claire Bloom. The classic horror tale is back again this summer, now with Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones up at bat. Unfortunately, the house wins this time -- and audiences lose.
Neeson stars as Dr. David Marrow, who is conducting an experiment about fear. He lies to his subjects (Taylor, Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson), claiming he's conducting a sleep disorder study. This is the first of many lies -- that is, aside from the main one, the studio's claim that this film is scary.
Taylor plays Nell, a sensitive and somewhat mousy young woman who, until her invalid mother's recent death, spent her entire adult life taking care of her.
Zeta-Jones plays Theo, an aggressive woman-about-town who acts a lot more secure then she actually feels.
And Wilson plays Luke, a cynical bigmouth who is the first to sense that all is not right with this fake sleep disorder study. Apparently he's the only one of the bunch with an IQ above 10.
Magnificent house is the main star
The "experiment" take place in a spectacular 130-year-old mansion called Hill House. The house was built by a bitter, evil industrialist, Hugh Crain, for his young bride in hopes they'd have many children. Unfortunately she died before his dreams could be fulfilled. Instead, Crain grew more bitter and more evil, until he started taking his twisted pain out on the youngsters working in his sweatshops. Hill House becomes a human roach motel. Kids check in, but they never check out.
Obviously, this huge house is the perfect setting for an experiment about fear. A good old-fashioned hospital or clinic would be out of the question. Otherwise we'd have no film, would we, since the house is really the main star and if there were a story to steal it would have stolen it. Unfortunately there is no story, just endless special effects broken up by really dumb dialogue.
While the PG-13 rating for "The Haunting" may discourage parents from taking younger children to this movie, younger children are probably the only ones that might find it remotely frightening. The script is unusually embarrassing, producing laughter time after time throughout the screening I attended. (I have mentioned that this is not a comedy, right?) There were few -- if any -- gasps of fright.
Over-the-top effects do not a movie make
Director Jan de Bont brought us the blockbusters "Speed" and "Twister." But as we've seen with his last effort, "Speed 2: Cruise Control," he's a man who won't let a silly little detail like lack of plot get in the way of his whiz-bang special effects.
Special effects for their own sake are like fireworks -- interesting to look at and capable of producing a lot of ooohs and ahs, but after a while it's time to pack up the picnic basket and go home.
And that's just what happens here: The computer-generated effects are so over-the-top and so unrelenting that eventually they mean nothing. Meanwhile, the poor actors seem to be on the verge of hyperventilating as they run from one horrifying blue screen effect to the next.
The 1963 version of this same story is so much better because its director Robert Wise, lacked the technology to make his "Haunting" into a festival of effects. Therefore, the actors and the story had to do all the heavy lifting in order to move the plot along. What a concept!
In all fairness, despite the overkill, the sets of the mansion itself -- built in Howard Hughes' airplane hangar in Long Beach, California, which originally housed his gigantic airplane "The Spruce Goose" -- are quite magnificent. Production designer Eugenio Zanetti, who won an Academy Award for his work on "Restoration," has done awe-inspiring work here. The house is similar to Xanadu, the unforgettable home owned by the fictional Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles' film "Citizen Kane."
But as Zanetti proved in another of his recent films, "What Dreams May Come," good sets can't save a bad movie.
Taylor is a fine actress who has been seen mainly in independent films such as John Waters' "Pecker" (1998), "I Shot Andy Warhol" (1996), and 1994's "Cold Fever." It's a shame she chose this vehicle for a venture into the mainstream.
Zeta-Jones is drop-dead gorgeous, but this film, after "Entrapment," isn't going to help her career. As for Neeson, he must have one big mortgage bill to pay.
"The Haunting" is rated PG-13 with a running time of 117 minutes.
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