"The Haunting"

Catherine Zeta-Jones playing a lesbian in a fur-trimmed vest? That's not scary -- that's hilarious.

Published July 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Spiritually speaking, Jan De Bont's "The Haunting" shares nothing with
either the lullingly terrifying 1963 Robert Wise picture of the same name
or with Shirley Jackson's subtly chilling novel "The Haunting of Hill
House." The characters have the same names and similar basic psychological
characteristics as they do in the earlier movie: Lili Taylor's Nell is shy
and repressed, Catherine Zeta-Jones' Theo is a lesbian extrovert. The plot
has the same bare bones: As the subjects of a scientific experiment, a
small bunch of dissimilar human beings are thrown together in a house with
a past (and a mind) of its own.

But beyond that, De Bont's "The Haunting" is its own numbingly
ridiculous creature. Even if you don't think of it as a remake -- if you
step into the theater with no memory or knowledge of the story as it was
originally told by Jackson and adapted by Wise -- it is, quite simply, a
mess, a jumble of fancy special effects that are supposed to be scary but
are really just fancy, further decorated with dribbles of dialogue, most of
which are unintentionally hilarious. Fine actors like Liam Neeson and Lili
Taylor do their damnedest to nibble their way to the psychological core of
their characters, but they're hamstrung by a shoddy script and De
Bont's willfully clueless direction. Not even the staggeringly attractive
Zeta-Jones can give it much appeal: When she and Nell first meet,
and she announces with bubbling enthusiasm that her gorgeous suede boots
are Prada -- "Milan, not New York!" she hastens to add -- you think her
character might at least give the movie a bit of stylish fun. But when she
appears in a bulky fur-trimmed vest that looks like something Imogene Coca would
have worn on the old caveman TV show "It's About Time," all hope is lost.
"The Haunting" has no style or wit, and the scariest thing in it is that vest.

It's audacious of De Bont and screenwriter David Self to even try to
give "The Haunting" a sense of humor. Wise's movie sure doesn't have one --
but then, neither does James' "The Turn of the Screw." Wise's version of "The Haunting" isn't one of those movies that serves up big scares and then makes you laugh at yourself for
having such an extreme reaction. Its terror creeps up on you stealthily,
like a malevolent, soundless forest creature. (It's much more in league
with the crafty ingeniousness of "The Blair Witch Project"
in the way it picks away at your deepest emotional reserves, although it isn't nearly as
unpleasant or as deeply unsettling as that picture.) Wise's "The Haunting"
works mostly by insinuation and suggestion: a figure in the wallpaper just
might look like a howling face -- or then again, it might be just
wallpaper. Julie Harris' Nell hears unintelligible whisperings in the
night, the kind of thing that you might hear yourself, coming from
somewhere or nowhere, as you're just emerging from a dream.

But De Bont, apparently, didn't need to be bothered with such subtleties.
"The Haunting" is just a rehash of his "Twister," a roller-coaster ride
instead of an actual movie. David Marrow (Neeson), a scientist who studies
human fear (boo!), drags a group of three individuals -- Taylor,
Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson, as the hapless ski bum Luke -- out to big,
foreboding Hill House, telling them that he's really doing a study on
insomnia. Boy, does he feel bad when things start to go haywire. The night
the group arrives, he regales them with a story about the owner of the
house, creepy Hugh Crain, whose portrait hangs in the hallway looking like
a paint-by-numbers Francis Bacon. Crain was a textile magnate who wanted
nothing more than to fill his house with the happy laughter of children and
whose bitterness only solidified when his own children died at birth. He
became a recluse, his second wife hanged herself, etc. and so forth,
and now his house, filled with strange mysteries and things that go bump in
the night, is all that remains of his legacy.

But Taylor's Nell, a timid and troubled soul who's displaced from her own
family and whose invalid mother has just died, feels curiously drawn to the
house. She likes all its creepy appointments, its heavy mahogany carvings
of stern griffins and yowling demons. Why? Maybe she's just sick of Pottery
Barn. But it quickly becomes clear to the group that the house is a
repository of evil when a harpsichord string pops free and boings Dr.
Marrow's assistant, Mary (Alix Korozmay), in the eye. Later that night, Marrow
earnestly records the day's events, recalling his observation of his
subjects' fear. He closes his report by grimly remarking, "Dear Mary almost
lost an eye." And she wasn't even running with scissors!

From there, "The Haunting" descends into an ever more absurd spiral of
pseudo-thrills. Taylor tries hard to make us understand poor Nell's
predicament, her sense of not really having a home either literally or
spiritually. But even though Taylor's a wonderful actress, it's impossible
to read much on her face when there's so much heavy-handed scare action
roiling around her. Nell's bed at Hill House is an elaborate affair,
decorated with carved visages of peaceful-looking, chubby-cheeked cherubs.
She likes to look at them in the night as she's trying to go to sleep,
even going so far as to implore them to tell her their secrets. They're
creepy enough as it is, but De Bont has to make sure we understand their
significance: When the ghost of Hugh Crain comes after Nell, ostensibly
looking for nookie, their eyes and mouths open wide in horror, quite
possibly a signal that he's someone we're supposed to fear -- the
equivalent of Lassie barking at a scowling stranger wielding a machete.

Hill House itself is supposed to be a major character in the story, a place
that knows what it wants -- in this case, Nell -- and will stop at
nothing to get it. Statues of people and animals come to life, pulling
their victims into pools deep enough to drown in or threatening to peck
their eyes out. Horrific specters burst through windows and grab at people.
But it's all so predictable, so flashy and so big -- a story told in noisy
semaphore -- that it barely makes a dent in the psyche. In fact, it's
barely enough to engage you, even on the most superficial level, for an
hour or two. Hill House is supposed to be a repository of unspeakable
secrets, a place where evil lurks. Instead, De Bont's got it haunting as
fast as it can.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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