The trailers alone are a tip-off that The Haunting is more of a date flick than a genuine horror film, but this movie postpones surrendering to its own junky instincts for a surprisingly long time.
The Haunting is director Jan de Bont’s remake of the 1963 movie of the same name, a movie that many people consider a dark classic. In the new version, a group of people is invited by a professor to take part in a sleep disorder study at an old mansion in the Berkshires. But the professor doesn’t tell them is that he’s actually studying "the science of fear," or that Hill House is ruled by the ghost of its former owner, a malevolent robber baron and child murderer from the last century.
The actors involved make up one of the more eccentric ensembles in recent memory. Liam Neeson is the doctor playing at God. Sex-symbol du jour Catherine Zeta-Jones is a cocky bisexual adventurer. Owen Wilson, who played the unforgettable Dignan in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, is an electric little flibbertigibbet who makes his living by participating in scientific studies. And Lili Taylor plays Nell, a young woman who’s lost touch with the world while tending to her dying mother.
The mansion in which they gather is a vast stone cavern that’s swimming with the cherubic faces of the owner’s victims carved into its wood molding, studded with bronze and burnished gold, and streaked with reds and verdigris. In part a visual pun on Citizen Kane’s Xanadu (some important action occurs inside a walk-in fireplace), the house also features a brilliantly mirrored ballroom whose floor rotates like a turntable when it’s stepped on, a room containing only a series of stepping stones across an indoor stream, and a capacious Victorian conservatory. The Haunting wisely uses the setting as a source of humor rather than trying to keep us in awe of it. "There’s some good hallways that way," Wilson dryly informs Neeson when they happen to cross paths in a remote corner of the house.
In fact, the film is awash in good humor in its early going. The caretaker’s wife (Marian Seldes) is like a sister to Young Frankenstein’s Frau Bluecher: the solemn warning she issues to her guests is hilariously inflected with the spirit of ghost movie dialogue. And a looming oil portrait of the monstrous tycoon makes him appear so outlandishly demonic that you can’t help but laugh at the idea of someone commissioning such a picture of themselves.
This lightheartedness makes it easy to overlook things like yet another grotesque Bruce Dern performance (it’s thankfully small) and Neeson’s pseudo-scientific maunderings on the nature of fear. (These may have been meant to parody Vincent Price’s monologues in The Tingler, but they aren’t written with the snap of the Seldes speech and Neeson is right to look embarrassed when he delivers the lines.)
Less forgivable is the fact that in its final half-hour The Haunting stops entertaining us with its atmosphere and dialogue, and instead devolves into the usual smorgasbord of digital special effects. It frankly doesn’t matter that some of the effects are original or even beautiful. Filmmakers have someday got to realize that turning a movie like this over to the ILM types is tantamount to waving a little white flag and crying out: "We don’t know how to tell a simple story anymore. Help us, help us."
Still, The Haunting is just fun enough not to be offensive; it isn’t one of those flicks that make you calculate how many new schools could be built with its budget. Screenwriter David Self has created, if not characters exactly, people who are much more enjoyable than the scarecrows that de Bont foisted off on us in Speed and Twister. And Self has improved on the original film in one indisputable way. In the ’63 version, Nell (as played by Julie Harris) is a hand-wringing masochist whose spineless dithering pulls the picture down so badly that you pray for something awful to happen to her. Self has taken Nell the other way, making her a woman who’s repressed a mischievous nature her entire life, so that she’s flattered when the house begins calling out to her – she’s ready to jump at the chance for adventure. "I can be a victim or I can be a volunteer. I’m going to be a volunteer," she declares before kneeling down amidst a garden of sculpted children. (You can’t help but notice that this serene tableau, the film’s most striking image, looks blissfully untouched by the special effects crew.)
The Haunting is Lili Taylor’s movie all the way. You don’t quit watching her even when she’s paired up with the more glamorous Zeta-Jones, and she keeps filling out the corners of Nell’s character right up to the moment when the special effects wrestle the picture away from her. No actor could redeem the fruity dialogue that she has to scream out at the end, but an early moment in which she instinctively recoils from Zeta-Jones’ ambiguous touch sends an instant shock wave through the movie. The immediacy of her response reminds us that we’re not used to real acting in these big-budget flicks, and makes us wonder what they’d be like with a little more of it.
The other actors might have come off as well had they been given more to do. We never come to understand whether Neeson’s doctor is a megalomaniac or a simple bumbler because the movie just stops caring about the issue. Zeta-Jones’ primary function is to show off her cleavage and titillate us with talk about her "girlfriend," but even Anne Heche makes a more convincing lesbian. Only Owen Wilson, with his glittering eyes and tight manic energy, is in any position to help Taylor knock the movie out of its comfort zone. And, for most of its running time, they make The Haunting a lot more fun than it has any right to be.
– Tom Block