Jan De Bont covered himself in cinematic glory when he released Speed, and then Twister, to massive box-office results. So it was with great anticipation that his third major directorial effort, The Haunting, was released in 2000. The anticipation was, however, short-lived, as the film he came up with was an utter turkey.
“Starring” Liam Neeson (I use the term advisedly), Owen Wilson (before he was really famous), Catherine Zeta-Jones (what on earth was she thinking?) and Lili Taylor (who, after I think about it, almost deserved to be in this!) as a group of people staying inside a purportedly haunted house, in order for Neeson to carry out an insomnia test. Problem is, the house hides a dark and dangerous secret, the answer to which lies in the family lineage of Nell (Taylor), the reclusive, recently bereaved, young woman who comes to the house to try and find herself again.
The Haunting is a stupid film. That’s letting it off lightly. The script is woefully inadequate, filled with narrative missteps and logical chasms that come perilously close to swallowing any viewer whole. In fact, there’s a major issue with the film that makes this one of the lamest, most inept pieces of filmmaking we’ve seen in ages. None of the characters are given any meat to work with in their development, all rely on the traditional horror/thriller cliche ridden path laid out for them by a script most certainly devoid of feeling: even poor Lili Taylor struggles with her role, obvisouly confused as to what she’s supposed to be doing. The house, apparrently, contains the spirits of children murdered by a previous occupant, or somesuch nonsense, which results in various bump-in-the-night moments throughout the majority of the film’s run-time. Problem is, and here’s the crux: we never fully get an explanation for what the hell is going on. The story is as oblique as stained glass, there’s barely a resolution, and the one we’re given almost reeks of studio-condoned interference. Such a lacklustre story, coupled with a cast in dire need of direction, and you have a film wobbly to start with, collapsing upon itself by the end.
The Haunting starts with a good premise. Have a group of lonely, isolationist people stuck in a house that’s designed for the sole purpose of scaring the daylights out of them. Add in a few chills, a few good scares, and the film could have really been a psychological thriller. Jan De Bont, in his bludgeoning directorial style so immediately recognisable from Speed and Twister (both films which lacked sensitivity and subtlety…. good at the time, badly needed with this film!) manages to eke out only the barest amount of tension, as scares and bumps are either telegraphed to the point of stupidity, or just simply loud crashes and twangs as piano wires snap and doors crash in a cacophony of badly executed writing and excellent sound design. De Bont thinks that an audience will jump and enjoy the ride if you simply throw a loud noise into a rear channel of audio: sorry Jan, it doesn’t quite work like that. First, you have to give us characters we give a damn about, and all bar Nell are simply meat for the grinder. Second, you have to create a sense of dread, a sense of threat that we aren’t sure whats coming next. Thirdly, well, if you can’t get the first two right, then you’re screwed, sunshine.
And Jan, you’re screwed.
First, the characters. Theo, an uptight bisexual hottie (Zeta-Jones, perfectly cast for her physicality) is the one everybody wants to be with, or just be, depending on sex. Her aloofness to her insomnia, and her gradual breaking down of Nell’s inhibitions are washed aside as the film becomes a mere drudgery of inept scene setting and execution: vastly expensive special effects just dont’ scare us. Zeta-Jones looks like she just stepped from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and I guess this is part of her charm within the film: she’s not the kind of girl you’d expect to see in a film like this, right? And while there’s a tantalising glimpse of what Theo is all about, what her character is like, again, the film’s effects overkill and labyrinthine narrative ensure we never get any meat… merely window dressing.
Neeson’s character, Doctor Marrow, is a vain, selfish oaf with all the intellectual skill of a pound of applesauce. His inability to see bey0nd his own ambition, and his misguided sense of loyalty to the house’s occupants when things turn to crud, is about as deep as his character gets. He’s a two dimensional being, and a lousy human being at that. Owen Wilson, perhaps of all the cast, comes off the best, since he’s the most likable. He’s cheeky, roguish, broken-nosed handsome, and generally portrayed a the chatty one of the bunch. While Wilson gives us his traditional surfer-dude vibe throughout, there’s very little for him to do but stare blankly at the special effects, blankly at Theo as she struts about the vast vault-like rooms of Hill House, and blankly as he meets his long-awaited untimely end. Lili Taylor get’s absolutely nothing from the story. Her mother, recently deceased and leaving her nothing in a will fraught with bad debt, manages to loom large over Nell’s emotional state, a factor which comes into play when the house starts behaving badly. Why this happens, we never know. Why her mother and her feelings about her mother are so strong, we never really get told. It’s all wishy washy stuff, from a script devoid of depth. Scary movies, while traditionally more about the half-naked chick screaming whilst being stabbed to death by the Killer, still need to have some sort of plausible, coherent story to make sense, and to generate at least a little empathy for the main characters. In The Haunting, there’s about as much coherency as an episode of The Muppet Show. That is, none whatsoever. Taylor tries to develop her character, but beyond the conventions of the scary movie genre, she’s got nothing, and she’s unable to give any more.
The second point I made, about a sense of dread, creating a mood of tension and general fear? Well, if bombast and overkill are ways of creating those emotions and moods, then I’m a Brazilian Hooker with 10 bob of Coke in my pocket. Let’s just say that De Bont, in his infinite wisdom, handles subtlety with the aplomb of an epileptic bomb technician. There’s no way a man with the directorial skill of a jackhammer be screwing about with scary movies. Jan’s idea of a scary movie is to have his set come to life like some living being, a posession almost egregious in what it asks of an audience to believe. What is this, a house or a Transformer? At least the concept was handled so much better in Monster House, but here, in live-action, it’s plain old stupid. And generates no tension whatsoever.
Ghastly sounds emanate from the audio track that just wont quit. It’s like the filmmakers were dared to produce a soundtrack capable of both destroying landscapes and ensuring a headache for anybody watching. If this film is good for only one thing (and that doesn’t include burning) then it’s testing out a decent home cinema, because with either the Dolby or dts soundtrack, your speaker will want to kill you afterwards. Okay, so you have the ability to make sounds come from everywhere, but do you have the justification for it? I tell you, in this instance, no, you don’t. De Bont’s experience on Twister must have taught him that in order to appreciate good sound, you simply have to hear it all the time, from every possible speaker, at a volume akin to being at Hiroshima in ’45. There’s a moment, somewhere in this cinematic mess, where Nell is pursued along a corridor by…. well, what the hell it is we don’t know, and it’s seems like the footsteps of hell are being unleashed upion the poor woman, and upon us. The soul-shaking bass of a monster coming for you seems eerily reminiscent of Mysterious Planet than a modern horror film, however, De Bont treats it like a thrill ride at a theme park, minus the vomit-bags.
The special effects, which number in the hundreds on this film, none of which are actually frightening (except for a hand coming through a door….. well, that did make me jump, but isn’t actually scary!) are a seemingly endless parade of technical audition tape stuff from ILM, the digital world somehow meant to frighten us into thinking this crap is real. Unfortunately, the fact that De Bont relies so heavily on digital effects mitigates the essence of a good horror/thriller: that is, the thing hiding in the shadows… the thing we can’t quite see but we know is there… you know, the thing under your bed or in your closet when the lights go out, and you’ve only got your doona to protect you. De Bont thinks that by showing us everything we’ll automatically assume what’s meant to be scary and what isn’t. The sense of terror just ain’t there.
If you’re going to watch a film to simply waste your time, there’s better versions of this film on the market. House On Haunted Hill, for one, is a much better film scare-wise, even if it’s got a plot that’s just as stupid. The Others, that great Nicole Kidman scare-fest is a real gem, and relies more on what you don’t see and hear than anything else. Whatever you do, it’s probably best to avoid watching this film unless you simply don’t have the stamina to continue living any longer.
The Haunting is an utterly contrived, expensive, mis-directed, waste of time. Avoid at all costs.