The Haunting (1999)

The HauntingStarring Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson.
Written by David Self based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.
Directed by Jan de Bont.

Grade: C-

Review by Carlo Cavagna.

As horror films go, The Haunting has its share of enigmas, not the least of which is.... What in the name of all that's unholy is Liam Neeson doing in this film? Lili Taylor, I can understand. She's a talented actor, but until now has been seen only in offbeat independent films (I Shot Andy Warhol). The Haunting is her first starring role in a big budget picture. Catherine Zeta-Jones, I can understand. She may be a rising star, but this is only her third major role. Given how far in advance actors commit to movies, she was likely still unknown when she signed on to play second banana to Taylor. But Neeson? Perhaps he owed Dreamworks executive Steven Spielberg (who directed Neeson in Schindler's List) a favor. It's the only way to explain his presence in such a mediocre special effects film--his second of the summer of 1999, the first being The Phantom Menace, of course.

The real star of The Haunting is Hill House, a forbidding and imposing mansion supposedly located in the Berkshires. It's actually a beautiful palace on the outside, and I'd love to know where the building really is--probably somewhere in Europe. On the inside, Hill House is an amusement park funhouse, complete with hidden passages, a room that spins like a merry-go-round, and hundreds of cherubs. "Some houses are born bad," says the tagline. It might be frightening if it weren't so ridiculous.Neeson, Wilson and Zeta-Jones react to the script

The same goes for the movie itself. As long as things remain relatively calm, The Haunting is occasionally spooky, but once the screaming begins, so will your laughing. Perhaps if the movie had been directed by somebody who understands that the human imagination can be far more terrifying than any morphing gargoyle, The Haunting might have given you nightmares. But unfortunately, Jan de Bont (Twister, Speed, Speed 2) was put in charge, so instead of horror, we get action.

The premise is this: Dr. David Marrow (Neeson) is studying the physiology of fear. He lures three subjects (Taylor, Zeta-Jones, Wilson) to Hill House under the pretense of conducting sleep disorder research, but his true plan is to scare the bejeezus out of them. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Dr. Marrow is not the only one playing games with the three insomniacs.

Beyond that, the less said about the story, the better. Let's just say that The Haunting culminates with an unintentionally side-splitting confrontation between Taylor and an irate ghost, during which Taylor admonishes (at the top of her lungs), "It's about the children! It's all about family!" It turns out the ghost has questionable family values.

Because The Haunting is so absurd, you might find it to be reasonably enjoyable escapism, depending on your appreciation for camp. Sometimes bad writing can be just as entertaining as good writing. While I fervently hope that de Bont never helms another film again, I can't say I didn't have any fun at old Hill House.

Review © August 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 by Dreamworks LLC & Amblin Entertainment, Inc.

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