The Haunting
Rating -

Horror (US); 1999; Rated PG-13; 112 Minutes

Liam Neeson: Dr. David Marrow
Catherine Zeta-Jones: Theo
Owen Wilson: Luke Sannerson
Lili Taylor: Eleanor Vance
Bruce Dern: Mr. Dudley
Marian Seldes: Mrs. Dudley

Produced by Susan Arnold, Jan de Bont, Marty P. Ewing, Donna Roth and Colin Wilson; Directed by Jan de Bont; Screenwritten by David Self; based on the novel "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson

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Written by DAVID KEYES

The freedom of special effects has become somewhat of a war amongst filmmakers, and it seems like each new big budget blockbuster that arrives on theater screens is more of an attempt to outdo previous visual efforts, rather than an undertaking of general interest in story and characters. Studios drive their budgets high and far, allowing the filmmakers to explore the possibilities of technology, without feeling bound to cut corners. Soon enough, they have taken the envelope as far as it can go, assured that audiences will look at the movie and eat up every ounce of breathtaking visuals. Unfortunately, while these images are being integrated, scripts are ignored, and stories are lost in the rich and lush environments. Sure, this isn't a problem for those who enjoy being fed visual caviar, but what about the others, who enjoy compelling stories attached to the evocative images? While stylized special effects are refreshing, the story and characters that surround them are usually forgettable, sometimes absurd, thus dragging the movie's strong points down. This is, of course, where the typical phrase "style over substance" comes in.

Jan de Bont's "The Haunting" is such an example. It's about a guy who traps three unsuspecting insomniacs in a haunted house to do a study on fear, without the realization that the house he has chosen is inhabited by an evil spirit who holds children hostage. And since all of these plot devices are so carelessly underwritten and unobservant (not surprisingly), we are forced to pay every ounce of attention on the special effects, which are by far the best seen in a movie this year. And for once, in quite awhile, the visuals are so magnificent that you no longer care about a story enveloping them. By applying incredible detail to the creepy atmosphere, director de Bont creates one of the finest films of his career, a movie that, although it is narratively confusing and sometimes stupid, is saturated with magnificent textures, and filmed with incredible flair. Visually speaking, if George Lucas' "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" is a triumph, then de Bont's "The Haunting" is a masterpiece.

The film stars Liam Neeson as Dr. David Marrow, who has an obsession with studying trepidation, and doesn't mind terrorizing his victims for the benefit of scientific observation. He lures three unsuspecting insomniacs into the notorious Hill House, located far at the end of town, unoccupied by living beings by the time night has fallen. Each person has their own story to tell, but alas the film's script barely gives the most important character a chance to describe her life; meanwhile, the other two offer minor details that are never explored to the extent. The most important character is Eleanor (Lili Taylor), who has been so worked to death by the sound of her mother calling her in the night that sleep is almost impossible. Even when the house creaks, and makes sudden noises, she hears them, and is easily disoriented. Her mother may have died, but a knock on the door results in the dialogue "I'm coming mother."

To provoke their fear, Marrow describes the remnants of Hill House's creation, in which a man built a structure so that he could hear the sound of children's laughter. And the house looks like children would enjoy it, too, with all its wooden carvings and echoing halls steeped in meticulously dense colors. There is even a room of mirrors that rotates like a Ferris wheel, and once Eleanor and Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones) have discovered it, they frolic within the structure like they were kids again.

The innocent story of a man's love for children becomes considerably grotesque. We learn from ominous sources that this man was actually a disturbing, hateful human being, who kidnapped children from town and held them hostage in his complex castle. Once the story is revealed to the insomniacs, they hear low growls behind closed doors, and get sudden chills that last a few seconds and then disappear without trace. Most of these events are taken rather seriously by Eleanor, who believes that the small children she hears crying are trying to tell her something.

But what the movie achieves in this eerie atmosphere is not always brought to the absolute height, because of the one-dimensional characters. Zeta-Jones passes off as a rather dull player, who starts of interesting when we see that she has homosexual tendencies, and then gradually loses steam when she fails to go much further with them. Liam Neeson, well-known for his long list of exceptional movie roles, describes the manifestation of fear in a far-fetched manner, which prevents us from reaching the level of dread that these characters experience. And Luke Sannerson, who is subject to most of the film's accidents, is dimwitted and extremely useless. It's as if he should be in a "Friday The 13th" sequel or something.

There's no doubt that this would have been the best movie of the year, had it been written more smartly. Ah, but it succeeds without wise writing anyway. Why is that? Because the movie is the kind that you stare at with utter amazement, since the haunted house in question contains hordes of statuettes, lush images, disturbing portraits, long narrow hallways, bizarre mirror rooms, and steep staircases that seem to come alive when night falls upon them. By applying such rich detail to these visual treats, De Bont proves that a plot is not always the most important thing in the making of a motion picture. The attention he pays on the house is much-needed, although he and his writers should have realized that a reasonably good story would have taken these special effects a lot farther.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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