Okay…it’s time for a quick tongue twister. The Haunting is based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, and was originally titled The Haunting of Hill House, unlike the prior 1963 movie based on The Haunting of Hill House, simply titled The Haunting. Now, another haunted house film is due out this fall, entitled The House on Haunted Hill, which has nothing to do with The Haunting of Hill House, or The Haunting. However, potential confusion caused the makers of the new film, The Haunting of Hill House, to retitle their film to The Haunting, although it is not based upon the earlier film The Haunting, but instead, the novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Why do I mention all of this? Simply put, this alliterative allocution is much more interesting than the fright-free horror film which is The Haunting. The only ones who will be scared of this latest haunted house are the producers who footed the bill for this lavishly expensive disaster.
The film starts off with an awkward explanation by the ethically-challenged Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson). He is going to perform a psychological examination of fear, under the guise of an insomnia study. His plan is to gather three paid volunteers at a “haunted” house, wherein they will be isolated and examined. The film seemingly sets this up as an excuse for the supernatural happenings that occur in the real haunted house…but it doesn’t fool the audience for one second, nor the characters.
The first volunteer is Nell (Lili Taylor), a shy woman who has fruitlessly devoted her life to caring for her recently deceased mother. Devoid of house and home, she comes to Hill House seeking adventure (never mind that she signed up for an insomnia study). Next up is Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an aggressively bisexual beauty who’s there purely to add some sex appeal to the proceedings, and little else. Rounding out the trio is Luke (Owen Wilson), a cocksure young man who is certain something unusual is afoot.
And then there’s Hill House itself, the most colorful and interesting character in the film. A dizzying carnival of rooms, sculptures and labyrinthine hallways. It seems that it was build one hundred years ago by a cruel miser named Hugh Crane. Now, not only his spirit, but the ghosts of hundreds of children who worked in his textile mills run rampant throughout the place, causing all sorts of mischief. The target of most of the haunting is none other than the wallflower Nell, who can’t understand why she’s being singled out…particularly when the specters turn malevolent.
The ghost of Hill House is afflicted with the James Bond villain syndrome, albeit in a less talky manner. When the ghost has the opportunity and means to get rid of the pesky humans… it delays, it stalls, it procrastinates. No reason is given whatsoever for the ghost’s postponing tactics. Granted, if everyone was killed in the first fifteen minutes, there wouldn’t be much of a movie, but a good screenplay would have at least offered up a token explanation.
The special effects of The Haunting are bloated and overdone. When subtlety is called for, the effects blunder into the scene with the delicacy of a 40-ton weight. On the other hand, the film’s sound effects work unusually well. But, whenever they are combined with a visual extravagance, the sights unfortunately outweigh the sounds.
The usually reliable cast is given a lemon of a script with which to work. Lili Taylor can’t retain much dignity when she’s forced to utter lines like, “I’m not a victim…I’m a volunteer!” The cast resigns to play second fiddle to the sets and effects throughout the movie.
Director Jan De Bont continues on the downward trajectory he began with the debacle, Speed 2: Cruise Control. With The Haunting, his pace is accelerating.