|Meet the guinea pigs|
Show business is often considered a business made up of various forms of smoke and mirrors designed to attract audiences. One of Hollywood’s favorite tricks is creating the illusion of something new out of something that has already been made. This mirage is achieved through a variety of methods, the most popular of which are sequels and remakes. While some sequels and remakes manage to improve upon their original source material, many others unfortunately pale in comparison to their predecessors. The Haunting, is one of the films that falls into the latter category yet still manages to be enjoyable, albeit unintentionally.
The Haunting follows the same premise as its two previous incarnations made in 1959 and 1966; a group of strangers are brought to the reportedly haunted Hill House as part of a clinical study. In the first two films, the doctor informs the other characters that he is conducting a study on the existence of ESP and haunted houses. In the 1999 version, however, Doctor Marrow (Liam Neeson) conceals his true purpose by misleading his subjects into believing that they have been chosen to study, and hopefully cure, their various sleep disturbances. While this change is small, it greatly affects the audience's and later the characters’ view of the doctor. The cast is made up of the doctor’s assistants (Alix Koromzay and Todd Field), the groundskeepers (Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes), and the three study subjects. The characters are all flatly written with the need to move the script to the next plot point often acting as their chief motivation. The assistants and groundskeepers are particularly expendable, and are fortunately restricted to minimal screen time. The study subjects consist of cynical everyman Luke (Owen Wilson), bohemian artist Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and sheltered loner Eleanor (Lili Taylor).
|Nothing says 'home' like dead-eyed children|
After the usual spooky welcome form the groundskeepers, Doctor Marrow begins the excursion by telling the group about the legend of Hill House, which at first glance reads more like a child’s fairy tale than a horror story. According to the story, benevolent millionaire Hugh Crane married a beautiful local girl, who later grew despondent when she was unable to have children. The legend goes on to explain that Crane built the house as a monument to the children he and his wife could never have. Before Marrow can finish the story, however, one of his assistants is wounded by a piano wire that snaps off of an old piano and cuts across her face. Both assistants leave in fear, leaving the doctor alone with his subjects…or so he thinks. Before long, strange things start occurring in the house that border on the supernatural. The guests’ anxiety is only increased when the doctor reveals the true story of Crane’s past as the brutal owner of a sweatshop in which hundreds of children were worked to death and later buried underneath Hill House. Eleanor is visited by ghosts of the dead children who beg her to help them escape from the mysterious force that still terrorizes them. Despite the many strange events in the house, the doctor and subjects do their best to find logical explanations, including the possibility that Eleanor is behind the supposed haunting. The accusations of the others add to Eleanor’s already unstable state and prompt her to dig further into the house’s past in order to exonerate herself. This of course leads the evil spirits in the house to retaliate against Eleanor and the other guests in special effects laden scenes that are more amusing than frightening. A personal revelation ultimately forces Eleanor to confront her internal demons in order to destroy the external ones plaguing the house.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Haunting is the way in which it places an A-list cast in a B-rate plot. Although all of the primary cast members would go on to star in commercial and critical successes, the best that they can manage with the film’s script are adequate performances. Oscar winner Zeta-Jones’ role is restricted to that of an art school stereotype who attempts to shock the other guests by repeatedly mentioning her bisexuality to the point of redundancy. Similarly, Owen Wilson is a long way from his successful turns in such films as Wedding Crashers and Midnight in Paris, as he spends most of the film meandering along the house’s hallways, nervously putting his hands in his pockets while declaring that he’s not afraid of ghosts. Neeson attempts to add a level of pathos to his ethically challenged psychiatrist, but can only do so much with lines like “We should have stopped this when Mary got hurt, and definitely when Eleanor did”. Taylor perhaps has the most difficult of the roles to work with as her character repeatedly acts in ways that defy logic, despite the fact that she is supposed to be the relatable center of the film. As a result, the film is filled with credible performances of a cast of stock characters.
The film’s combination of early CGI effects and cliched script make for an experience that is more fun house than haunted house. Throughout the film, the guests comment on the plethora of statues and carvings of children in the house, which are truly eerie. The unsettling effect of the images is quickly diminished, however, when cartoonish CGI ghosts start flowing out of them. Similarly, the creaks and bumps in the night requisite of any haunted house film are unable to provoke the necessary fear of the unknown because they are constantly trumped by the visible presence of laughably exaggerated menaces. CGI images of the walls of the house morphing into various shapes and the chimney flu’s attack on one character are particularly side splitting. Eleanor’s final revelation and the climax confrontation in which she scolds the house demon into submission add the final layer of unintentional comedy to the film’s already ridiculous base.
While The Haunting does have a talented cast and Hollywood budget to its credit, the film is unable to reach the lofty goals that it sets for itself. As a result, the film is at its best when viewed as a parody rather than as a horror film. When viewed in this fashion, the film’s inane dialogue and awkward effects help elevate its comic impact rather than hamper its potential for fright. Although I would not recommend it for true horror fans or those looking for genuine scares, The Haunting would be ideal for a gathering of friends looking for a good laugh at a mediocre film’s expense.