It must be disheartening for the makers of The Haunting to hear that the lobby poster is more frightening than the movie. A remake of the 1963 film based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 book, the 1999 version is not much more than an embarrassment to the legacy.
Directed by Jan DeBont who needs a hit after his last big stinky pile, Speed 2, The Haunting opens with the central character Eleanor (Lili Taylor) suddenly adrift in the world after the death of her ailing mother whom she took care of for many years. Her mean sister plans to sell the apartment Eleanor and her mother had been living in, so she volunteers for a ridiculously high-paying position in a sleep disorder experiment. Eleanor has been shut off from reality for so long that she apparently has become brain damaged. She’s a Gremlin-driving innocent who is so underdeveloped emotionally that she doesn’t know enough to be frightened.
Liam Neeson plays David Marrow, the doctor in charge of the experiment. He tells the subjects it’s a study on insomnia, but it’s really about people’s reactions to scary stimuli. So he brings his unquestioning guinea pigs to a giant house in the woods. Of course things go awry, the house has plans of its own, and mayhem ensues. That was probably the intent. Instead of mayhem, all that really ensues in The Haunting is a big mess. DeBont must have shot hours and hours of film and then boiled it down to the still-too-long finished product, because there are countless tangents leading nowhere. What happened to the mean sister? What happened to Dr. Marrow’s assistants? What happened to the children? The original version must have been six hours long. I’m pretty sure it still would have been a lousy mini-series.
The house is supposedly the big star. A living, breathing being with evil intentions, it has the most interesting role in the movie. If Pee Wee Herman went Goth, he might have built something like Hill House. Hilariously overdone with arches and filigree and lots of creepy sculpted children heads, the house was built by, you won’t believe it, an eccentric rich guy! Even more unbelievable, there are menacing portraits of him all over the house! There are scary blowing curtains and moving bookshelves. When we are first introduced to the house, it’s making threatening growling and breathing noises, but it sounded like indigestion to me.
Eleanor is not frightened by the house. Her wide-eyed naivete is meant to be foretelling of her destiny, but instead makes her come across as dim. The other subjects at least know enough to be wary, yet are not bothered much by the strange surroundings either, at least initially. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Theo, the contrived, polar opposite character of Eleanor, naturally. Theo shows up in Prada boots (from Milan, not New York) and a bunch of fabulous, sex-kitten outfits. She’s no-nonsense. She takes Eleanor under her wing like a kid who finds a wet puppy. Owen Wilson, who has the most distracting nose in Hollywood, plays the third subject, Luke. He’s blond house bait.
Sample dialogue: Eleanor walks into the huge greenhouse and says, “Oh, violets. Somebody must have died here,” then changes the subject. What? The money to make The Haunting was clearly spent on the house effects, not on the script. By the end of the movie, I was alternating between slapping my forehead and checking my watch, occasionally taking time to laugh. The final confrontation is eye rolling and unintentionally silly. Eleanor’s transformation is complete and her destiny fulfilled and all I could think was, “Boy, I hope Lili Taylor fires her agent.” It’s frightening how much money was spent on this waste of talent. But for me, the scariest thing about The Haunting was trying to get out of the parking garage after it was over.
+ David Kern