THE AISLE SEAT - "THE HAUNTING"
by Mike McGranaghan
The Haunting begins with a young woman named Nell (Lili Taylor) feuding with her sister and brother-in-law. She has cared for her invalid mother for years, with hardly a word of thanks. Now the matriarch of the family is dead, and the others want to sell the house. Nell is furious because it's her home, too. There's some screaming and some name-calling. Finally, Nell kicks them out. And I'm sitting there wondering, What does all this have to do with a movie that's supposed to be about a haunted house? Two hours later, I had an answer. I was also sorry I asked the question. The Haunting is a dull mixture of spook-house cliches and pathetic psychobabble. It's a scary movie all right, but not scary for the proper reasons.
At the end of that bizarre opening scene, Nell gets a phone call telling her about an ad in the paper. A researcher (played by Liam Neeson) lures a group of insomniacs to a haunted old castle for an experiment. He tells his subjects that he is studying the effects of sleep deprivation. In reality, he wants to examine the nature of fear. The participants include Nell, a bisexual artist named Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and a wisecracking guy named Luke (there's always a wisecracking guy in these movies; this time he's played by Owen Wilson, who also played wisecracking guys in Anaconda and Armageddon).
At first, everyone loves being in this crazy building. Then Neeson tells the others a scary story about the man who built it. Soon after, the requisite strange things begin happening. Noises penetrate the building, walls bulge, things start to move, etc. You know - haunted house-type occurrences (and believe me, there's nothing particularly new here). Soon it becomes a guessing game as to which characters will get out alive, if they get out at all.
There's a whole other section to The Haunting that I probably shouldn't reveal. Not because it's surprising - just because I don't want to give it away for people who may go see the film anyway. It's a very Freudian component in which Nell makes a "shocking" discovery that impacts her life (it also leads to an embarrassing scene in which Lili Taylor flips through an old book while inanely talking to herself). You can probably guess that the house has secrets; what you may not be able to guess is how silly they are, at least as presented here.
Then again, maybe you already know the secrets since the movie is based on the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel "The Haunting of Hill House." I haven't read the book, but it's got to be more interesting than this movie. A big part of the problem (dramatic credibility aside) is that the characters are little more than window dressing. Zeta-Jones, for instance, begins as a very interesting character, full of bravado and sexuality. By the movie's mid-point, though, all character traits have been washed away in a sea of special effects. All the compelling character stuff is ignored, making it hard to care about her or anybody else in the house.
Director Jan DeBont (Speed, Twister) obviously was inspired by those old Gothic horror movies. But he seems to have been so intent on building a better mousetrap that the film starts relying too much on computer-generated effects. Terror comes from a sense of facing the unknown, not from sophisticated CGI effects. Furthermore, DeBont appears to have lost his intense sense of pacing; The Haunted drags, even in its most lively moments.
It may sound like I hated this film. In many ways, I did. The acting is atrocious, with most of the actors seeming clueless about what to do (only Zeta-Jones has any life). The story is absurd, laying on plot twist after plot twist without sufficiently explaining anything. The direction is leaden and dull. However, I confess that there are two things that made The Haunting passably watchable for me. First is the sound. The effects (when heard in a digital theater) are ominous. In all the years I've been reviewing movies, I don't think ever complimented the sound guys before now, but the team here deserves major kudos. Second, I loved the house itself, which is a masterpiece of set design. It must have been a blast to be an actor on that set because the house looks like so much fun to play around in. It's spooky when the story is not.
I can't even come close to recommending The Haunting, though. A few months ago, I saw a stage production of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" that utilized only two actors, a sparse set consisting of just a chair and a staircase, and some lighting effects. That paired-down play conveyed more of a sense of horror and mystery than this big-budget Hollywood feature film could ever hope for.
( out of four)