When Houses Attack
The only thing I can come up with that would even begin to explain the mess that is The Haunting is that director Jan de Bont (Speed 2: Cruise Control) and writer David Self started out to make a parody of horror movies and halfway through changed their minds and decided to go for cheesy funhouse bangs. (No blame can be lain at the feet of Shirley Jackson, on whose novel this stinker is based.)
Surely, that is why we are presented with the impossibly gothic Hill House, where Dr. Jeffrey Marrow (Liam Neeson: The Phantom Menace, Schindler’s List) is conducting a study of human fear disguised as an insomnia research project. A rambling mansion chock full of glowering portraits, statuary of winged and horned beasts, and creepy carvings of cherubic children, this over-the-top spook house initially provokes laughs instead of chills even from Marrow’s research subjects, including the inexplicably bisexual Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones: Entrapment, The Mask of Zorro) and the cheerfully ironic Luke (Owen Wilson: Armageddon).
The parody angle is why the groundskeeper, Mr. Dudley (Bruce Dern: Small Soldiers) — his hair as wild and overgrown as the grounds he supposedly keeps — is so goofily skulky, right? And why Mrs. Dudley (Marian Seldes: Affliction), the cook and housekeeper, greets Marrow’s third subject, Nell (Lili Taylor: The Imposters), with cleaver in hand and warns her guests in a portentous monotone that “I leave before dark comes.” Surely, Mrs. Dudley is meant to remind us of Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein, no?
Actually, I doubt that de Bont and Self had parody in mind. After the few early and certainly unintentional laughs, things grind to a halt — though they’d barely gotten started — while de Bont’s camera wanders around, showing off his overblown sets, trying to prod the audience into being frightened with groaning music and stuff leaping out at us. And as if it’s not bad enough that the indifferent script gives us absolutely no psychological aspect to this fear-mongering, de Bont frames his scenes so that you know exactly where the next boo is going to jump from. It’s like having an annoying little nudge sitting behind you in the theater and poking you every five minutes as he gasps, “Aren’t you scared?” Enduring The Haunting is like watching a big, pointless cartoon. Psychology? Bah! Characterization? Bah! Isn’t CGI scary?
Lili Taylor, one of the finest actors of her generation, is completely wasted here. It’s so obvious that she loves the character of Nell, believes deeply in this repressed and emotionally battered young woman, and has thought long on the reasons why she is able to overcome her limitations when necessary, but Taylor’s subtle talents are not supported by the rest of the story. It’s like her performance has been pulled from another movie and digitally inserted into this one — I’d prefer to have seen the story that goes with Nell’s. Owen Wilson’s light touch of comedic goofiness is likewise out of place here.
At least Taylor and Wilson have something to do with themselves onscreen, which cannot be said for Catherine Zeta-Jones and Liam Neeson. Zeta-Jones has nothing to do but flirt weirdly with everyone — she even, as a friend of mine pointed out, flirts with the house and, ravishing as she is, that’s just plain bizarre. Neeson looks as uncomfortable as you’d expect from an actor who swore that after The Phantom Menace, he was never gonna act in front of a blue screen again, and here does little else.
Not being frightened by what was onscreen left me plenty of time to pick out lots of examples of simply awful writing and superconvenient plotting. “You don’t tell the rats they’re actually in a maze” is Marrow’s justification to his boss for the deception involved in his fear study. Unforgivably, though, scriptwriter Self has one of the girls chirp, “We’re like rats in a maze” as they explore Hill House’s funhouse of fake mirrors and rotating rooms. For reasons unexplained, Hill House’s main gate is chained, and when the characters, desperate to escape the house, need to ram the gate to get it open, do they choose the heavy-duty Dodge Ram truck, presumably Luke’s, that has been parked outside the house? No: they use Nell’s little econobox, which doesn’t look as if it could drive through a piece of paper, never mind an iron gate. Later, de Bont can’t treat us to another aerial shot of the house, the kind he’d favored in every other exterior shot, because we’d see the truck still be parked there and say to ourselves, “Wait a minute…”
Speaking of exteriors, The Haunting, set in New England, was so obviously shot in the old England that I found it jarring. Nothing even remotely like the grotesquely medieval manor that served as the outside of Hill House exists in the Berkshire Mountains where Hill House is supposedly located, and Nell’s “Boston” apartment looks as if it’s sitting in the middle of a Manchester slum. Niggly points, to be sure, but just another reason to hate this movie.