The Haunting (1999)

D: Jan De Bont
S: Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson

There are merits to this remake of The Haunting (based upon the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson), but they are mostly incidental. It is a full-bore old-school horror film laudably devoid of the tongue-in-cheek postmodernity of Scream, The Faculty and the like. It does present an architecturally fascinating space and for at least part of the running time relies on sound effects and set decoration for atmosphere. It is also admirably restrained in terms of body horror, with only one badly misjudged gory death and the rest working pleasingly on chills and a mounting sense of paranoia. These are all good things and represent a hopeful future for the genre in the respectful revisiting of its past. However The Haunting is a wasted opportunity. Long before its bloated climax, director Jan De Bont (Speed, Twister) and writer David Self lose themselves. De Bont deploys computer generated imagery to make explicit all that was previously suggested and Self turns Jackson's' particularly female story of empathy and emotional emptiness into a laughable tale of patriarchal evil and its destruction by feminine purity which is actually more cliched than its predecessor.

The plot concerns the attempts by scientist Liam Neeson to study the mechanics of fear by conning several insomniacs into spending time in a creepy New England mansion and planting a story about its haunted past. Things take a turn for the worse when the stories seem to come true. It may not matter to some viewers, but even this represents a significant distortion of the original plot (in which the entire point was to study a haunting), and somewhat cheapens the premise. It gets worse as it goes, with Self freely creating an entirely new backstory which lays all the blame (and the focus) with a single monster rather than with the nervous recluse played by Lili Taylor around whom most of the events revolve. This strips the story of much of its potential human drama. Be that as it may, after a few perfunctory establishing scenes, we find ourselves in the fascinating demense of Hill House, a bizarrely designed mansion filled with eerie statues and strange creaking noises. There are one or two light gags at this point, but thankfully they don't amount to an apology for what follows, and when things do begin to get spooky, the film keeps us interested at least for a while simply by photographing what production designer Eugenio Zanetti has cooked up and letting our minds do the rest. As time goes by, each of the temporary residents begins to encounter inexplicable phenomena and unwelcome feelings, which may be related either to their own belief or something more. Taylor in particular seems to have something going on on a psychic level, and may indeed be fulfilling her destiny.

Rather too early, De Bont restages the most famous scene from the original film, where Taylor and bisexual artist Catherine Zeta Jones (The Mask of Zorro, Entrapment) find themselves in a bedroom menaced by an unseen presence which may or may not be entirely imagined. Unfortunately, it is the only moment of ambiguity. As the film proceeds, the instances of supernatural occurrence become more explicit, and while there is an eerie effectiveness to the appearance of faces in curtains blowing in the wind, one longs for the terrifying simplicity of the imagination itself. It's all very well that we can now animate the gargoyles and statues with the aid of technology, but as Peter Weir proved with Picnic at Hanging Rock and Robert Wise proved with the original version of this film, at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, you don't need it. Produced by Dreamworks SKG, the film bears the unmistakable stamp of Steven Spielberg. As producer, Spielberg already delivered a perfectly adequate special-effects laden update of this particular genre seventeen years ago with Poltergeist. It is unfortunate that obvious affection for the original has resulted in an unnecessary remake. Why bother? If you want to make an over-the-top haunted house story, why not just make one up? Why do badly what has already been done quite well?

There are many other problems, not least of which is Taylor. While she does her best, she is far from credible in the contemporary setting the film attempts to establish. Julie Harris was believably naive as the sheltered spinster in 1963, but in 1999, such characters are no longer acceptable. She has been duly reinvented. Now she is young, attractive and determined in a way which undermines the needs which supposedly draw her character to the haunted house in the first place. It is probably inevitable therefore that when the script begins to turn her into a feminist ghostbuster, her performance has lost all form and she veers wildly from hysteria to preternatural certainty. Liam Neeson is clearly uncomfortable with his role, unable to give it even the kind of hokey dignity that Richard Johnson gave it in the original. Robbed of his status as a 'psychic investigator', this incredibly unprepared academic is reduced to a clueless blunderer and the film's resolution is far too literal to allow him to salvage anything from the experience. Owen Wilson plays a useless supporting role as another of Neeson's subjects, giving him far less of a purpose than even Russ Tamblyn had in the original (at least he was a skeptic and thus added some level of discourse to events). Jones is camped up from the more subtle character played by Claire Bloom and spends most of her time giving wide-eyed reaction shots.

This is understandable given that the special effects are impressive. As in The Frighteners, CGI proves a most effective medium for rendering ghostly images and swirling fogs (though the inclusion of computer-generated breath seemed unnecessary). Though the climax is the height of silliness, it does look good, with the phantasmal patriarch appearing as a dark cloud of angry greys and purples. Few of these effects are worthwhile additions to the basic story though, and they eventually result in the internal collapse of the narrative. Once the cast begin witnessing the all-too extravagant and visually elaborate occurrences together, the wonderful Rosemary's Baby-type uncertainty about just why any of this his happening goes out the window. The ending is particularly poor, and far from chilling. It leaves unanswered questions not about what has happened, but about its consequences for diagetic logic. Bruce Dern turns up as a grizzled caretaker whose concluding snarlings are reminiscent of limping hunchbacks and giggling villagers from a pre 1960s horror, the kind which the original version of this film problematised with its debates about rationality and science and which led, in time, to Rosemary's Baby (and eventually went full circle with The Amityville Horror, The Shining, and Poltergeist).

The Haunting therefore is a film out of time, a throwback which confuses homage with sacrilege. As a remake, it requires comparison with its predecessor, and must also be weighed against the conditions under which it has been made. We can't get too carried away about it, after all Wise's version was far from perfect. Compared to this though, it seems a model of elegance and subtlety. This film fails to generate a real feeling of fear, while thankfully attempting to restore to this genre some sense of its reason for existing in the first place (though it does rather painfully underline this with expository scenes where Neeson explains the 'value' of fear). It attempts to compensate for (post)modern skepticism (ironically, this is precisely what the original was doing) by updating its characters and special effects, but it is the timelessness of the haunted house and the potential of the old-fashioned ghost story which is really interesting: the rest is sound and fury. The result is disappointing, let's leave it at that, and we can only hope that the blame for its shortcomings is not left with the genre itself.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.