The Haunting

Directed by Jan de Bont
Starring: Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Bruce Dern, "and" Lili Taylor.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense horror sequences.

Review by Matt Heffernan
July 23, 1999

There hasn't been a good, old-fashioned haunted house movie in a while. Probably because you're not supposed to make old-fashioned movies at all, but rather try to forward the art of filmmaking. Instead, The Haunting is more like a film from the 1930's, except that a lot of computer-generated effects are added to make it look "modern".

This film is based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which was previously filmed in 1963 by Robert Wise. Liam Neeson plays Dr. Jeffrey Marrow, a psychologist who wants to study fear. He invites three insomniacs to a giant mansion under the pretense of a sleep study. His subjects are Eleanor (Lili Taylor), Theodora (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Luke (Owen Wilson). Eleanor is the most troubled of the group, just having her mother pass away. The other two are just busy-bodies who can't calm down enough to sleep.

The house is really more of a palace, kind of like the places you see in "America's Castles" on TV. There are long corridors, odd rooms, and little sculptures of cherubic children's heads everywhere. Neeson thinks that the spooky look and mysterious legend of the house will be enough to creep out the people, becoming increasingly afraid. What he doesn't expect is that the house is really haunted by the original master, and the spirits of children who were killed there over a hundred years ago.

Most of the film is from the point of view of Eleanor, who is alone most of the time. This is interesting, because she is given the old "and" billing, after Neeson, Zeta-Jones, Wilson, and Bruce Dern, who is on screen for about one and a half minutes altogether. She's obviously the lead, but is only the fourth biggest star (unless you count the effects of George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic). But to harp on that flaw would be a waste of time.

There are some genuine frights, even one real screamer in the middle, but they are mostly cheap "ooga-booga" scares. Most of the supposedly fearful objects are very obvious computer graphics. ILM certainly made a lot of money from this film. I was actually surprised to see the old "doorknob turning by itself" shot. All you need is some grip to turn it on the other side. The graphics are all very good-looking, but are too fantastical and poorly integrated to be of any effect.

Without the effects, you have a very hackneyed script, full of all the ancient horror movie clichés. Having strong actors in the leads (except Wilson, who seemed like some MTV "be in a movie" contest winner) helps elevate some of the material, but there are too many cobwebs to get around.

Every horror film that comes out this year, and probably next year, will have to compared with The Blair Witch Project (and every pseudo-documentary, for that matter -- see Drop Dead Gorgeous). Nothing in The Haunting gave me the deeply disturbing chills that I got from the last scene of Blair Witch. Maybe someday Hollywood will be able to actually make a real modern film.

An interesting note: this film was originally going to have the same title as the novel, unlike the 1963 film, which was also called The Haunting. However, there is going to be a remake of the classic Vincent Price movie The House on Haunted Hill coming out later this year. The names, and even the plots, were way too similar to prevent confusion.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
The Haunting (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at
The Haunting (1999) -- VHS
The Haunting (1999) -- DVD
The Haunting of Hill House, a novel by Shirley Jackson -- Hardcover
The Haunting, a novel by Shirley Jackson -- Paperback (title changed for "Movie Tie-in Edition")
The Haunting: Original Score, by Jerry Goldsmith -- Compact Disc Home
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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan