The Haunting (1999)

Spinning gold into shit
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1999
Director: 
Jan De Bont
Starring: 
Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson
The Setup: 
Remake of the excellent 1963 film adapted from the Shirley Jackson novel.
Discussion: 

When DreamWorks pictures opened, hopes were high that this new studio would turn out a mixture of interesting mainstream fare and prestige pictures. This 1963 haunted house classic by Robert Wise seemed an excellent idea for a remake, and the perfect recasting of all the parts from the original raised hopes further. Sure, it was directed by Jan De Bont, who had hit with Speed, but delivered nothing but shit afterward, but maybe he'd pull it together. Then the experience of watching the film, which starts bad, goes idiotic 30 minutes in, and only continues to become less rewarding. If you have read the novel or seen the original film, it will only compound your pain. And this fate, sadly, turned out represent almost all of DreamWorks' early releases.

We open with a few shots of the house, then join Lili Taylor as Nell in a Boston apartment. She spent years caring for her ill mother there, but was left out of the will and is now being booted out by her horrid sister, asshole brother-in-law and their monstrous child. They condescendingly offer her a position as their maid. She kicks them out, and one second later the phone rings. It is someone calling her attention to an ad in the paper seeking insomniacs to participate in a study.

We now join Liam Neeson as Dr. Marrow (Get it? Marrow??), organizer of said study. But guess what? It's not actually about insomnia, he's seeking highly suggestible people to conduct an experiment in fear. When told that he is unethical, he says "You don't tell the rats that they're in a maze."

So Nell arrives at the house, greeted by Bruce Dern as a surly caretaker, who takes her in and is never seen again. Inside, Nell explores the massively ornate house. She is soon met by Mrs. Darby, caretaker's wife, who shows her to her room and says he does not stay around after dark, and by the way, no one will live any closer than a few miles away. This speech is lifted intact from the original film, only there the woman gave a creepy smile after delivering it, and it was all-round more effective. Here it has giant quotes around it. Nell soon meets Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theodora, New York artist and fashion enthusiast who announces almost immediately that she is bisexual. Part of the reason these two women are perfectly cast is that the mousy, insecure Nell and the glamorous but unstable Theo are supposed to fall into a friendly/vicious predator/prey arrangement, but oh--that's if this version had any interest in character, which it doesn't. Sorry, casting director! You did a good job for nothing!

They walk around the house, which is jam-packed with ornate rooms overflowing with carvings of cherubic children, mixed with terrifying images of horror and judgement. There is a huge glass greenhouse, a hall filled with water with stepping stones carved to look like books, and a hall of mirrors that spins like a carousel. It's a bit like the haunted mansion version of Michael Jackson's Neverland. As they're walking, you're like "And one woman is keeping all of this clean?" Soon they are joined by Owen Wilson as Luke, and Marrow, and Marrow's two assistants. Marrow explains the history of the house, which is that this guy, Hugh Crain, loved children and wanted to fill the house with them (hence the Neverland vibe), but his wife couldn't have them, and soon died, and he went on with his crazy decorating scheme. There's a portrait of him, dark and lurching forward menacingly, clearly commissioned from Evil-Portraits-R-Us. It's pretty ridiculous that anyone would have a portrait painted like that, but its supposed to lend to the spooky atmosphere.

As they're all assembled in the main room, suddenly a harpsichord pin starts turning of its own volition, and a wire snaps and injures one of the assistants in the eye. That's it, just sudden ghostly activity, no build up or anything. The assistants leave, with a promise to come back, but are never seen or heard from in the film again. Everyone repairs to bed, where soon Nell is awakened by a banging on the wall. She runs into Theo's adjoining room, where the banging starts, accompanied by a powerful bashing against the doors, causing them to bend inward. They make it to lock the door of the adjoining room just as they start to be bashed powerfully from outside. Then it gets cold, evidenced by their visible CGI breath, and Theo is like "Do you feel it, Nell? Do you? Nell, do you feel it?" until you're like "She fucking feels it, okay? Geez." They are found by Marrow, who takes them to the kitchen and shows them that the water pipes bang when turned on. They both agree that yes, that was the sound, although it sounds nothing like it, and they've both forgotten about the quite noticeable bashing on the doors. This demonstrates the many ways the script treats its characters like idiots, and hence YOU as an idiot. Do they think we didn't see those doors?

I mention this in such detail because this marks a great departure from the original film, in which they heard a more discreet banging, demonstrated that they were cold by merely ACTING cold, and there was no bashing at the doors, just the slightest turning of the handle. And it was terrifying! And once it was over, you thought "Wow, I can't believe they wrung all those scares out of just a noise an a slight turn of the doorknob," but that's an example of what the original film did: made a whole lot out of the tiniest, most analog effects. And it's only going to get worse from here.

SPOILERS > > >
Nell goes back to sleep, when the CGI impression of a child comes gliding down her white billowing curtains, up into her bed, and into her pillowcase. Nell wakes to find the face of a child in her pillowcase, inches from her face, talking to her... and she gets up and calmly closes the window. Me personally, if I see a talking spirit child in a pillowcase inches from my face, I'm probably going to FREAK, or at least show SOME REACTION. But not Nell! She's a cool customer. The next day, Nell is chilling in a big room when she starts hearing lion sounds, and a carved lion statue suddenly appears in the fireplace! Oooh, scary. Then they find "Welcome home, Nell" written across Crain's evil portrait, and incriminations start about which of them wrote it, the consensus being that Nell wrote it herself. This was a big part of the original, where the film had set up all this underlying tension between the characters, and now it was starting to unravel. Well, not so much here. They make gestures at it, then it goes away, lost in the wash of CGI "Boo!" moments. In washing the paint away, the evil Crain portrait starts to look like a SKULL. Oooh, creepy skulls! Of course, as we discussed with regard to Poltergeist, the right film is able to make skulls scary. Here, just one of a thousand "creepy" elements, one piled atop the last.

That night, Nell wakes to find bloody footprints leading out of the room. They stay fresh until disappearing behind a bookcase, which had me imagining the footprint-maker stopping every few steps to apply fresh blood. Nell finds a secret doorway which leads to a hidden chamber--with a WINDOW! Kind of hard to keep those secret chambers secret when they're clearly visible from outside, right? There she is led to find a ledger than shows her a great number of children from the surrounding village missing and later dead, as well as Evil Portrait 2, of Crain's second wife. They have a photo flip book--please recall that in those early days of photography, a photo would require exposures of at least thirty seconds of absolute stillness, making a photo flip book HIGHLY unlikely--that shows the second wife pointing to the fireplace (the one with the lion). She wakes Theo, who thinks Nell has lost it, even though Nell could easily just take her next door and SHOW her the bloody footprints. But don't tell me--they'd probably be gone.

So the film is starting to set up that there are all the souls of children trapped in the house, as well as the ghost of Crain, and now Nell is firmly on the side of the children. Nell finds a creepy skeleton in the fireplace--which leaps at her! Then she's trying to get into a mysterious locked room, when a giant CGI hand comes out and pushes her away. I leave you to ask yourself whether a giant CGI hand is scary. But anyway, now Nell has a theory: she says Crain took kids from the old mill (yeah, there's always an old mill), and would kill the, or they would die or whatever. The bottom line: it was bad. Now all of the others think that Nell has cracked, and Marrow reveals that it was all an experiment gone too far, and faces the expected recriminations. But it's dark, so they have to spend ONE MORE NIGHT in the house! They put Nell to bed, saying she mustn't be left alone... then promptly leave her alone.

Not a moment later the room is going crazy, with breathing walls, wooden cherubs making terrified faces (duuumb) and wooden bed spikes that come down and pin Nell to the bed. The ceiling also comes down and starts making angry Crain-faces at Nell. The others come in and fight to get her out. Now, when last we saw everyone else, they thought that nothing was going on and Nell was just cuckoo, so you'd think they might have some reaction to finding the whole room breathing and hissing like a cobra on fire, but, well, you'd be wrong. They take it all in stride. They get Nell out, and from here on out the movie spends 20 straight minutes of the group running here, running there, trying to get in the car and get through the gate, running back into the house, trying to break the windows, running here, running there. In here, poor, tragic Taylor has to speak lines such as these to the empty house: "Who am I? What do you want from me? What do you want me to do?" Eventually Luke runs into the fireplace and gets the old decapitated-by-swinging-iron-lion-head treatment. Someone had to die, right? I mean, SOMETHING had to happen in this movie.

Now still MORE running here, running there, and running up by the evil portrait of Crain, which slllloooowwwwly falls down, scratching Theo and Marrow (oh no--scratches???) and gargoyles coming to life, going still, coming to life, etc. They're separated, and finally, Nell knows what she must do! She calls for Crain to step forth, which he does from the big evil portrait, coming down and--making mean faces! And roaring! Gee, I thought he could maybe DO something. We have still more terrified wooden cherubs (still dumb) and then the statues from the big iron door come to life and drag Crain into the door/afterworld/whatever. Honestly, I expected this guy to put up more of a fight. By the way, in here it is revealed that Crain is Nell's grandfather. Somehow. Don't ask. Nell tells Crain "It's not about them [the dead children]! It's about FAMILY!" and later, "Purgatory's over! Go to hell!" Then Nell runs to the door, gets konked, arbitrarily dies. Then--and by now you are completely desensitized by how flat-out idiotic this all is--Nell's smiling spirit rises up out of her body, and all the children's spirits rise up out of the door, now set free that big mean man Crane is out of the picture, and the spirits surround Nell as they all ascend happily to the big playroom in the sky. Theo and Marrow live to see another day, the end.
< < < SPOILERS END

Ugh, where to begin? The first place is the phenomenon of taking a good movie, deciding to remake it, then throwing out everything that made the original good and replacing it with garbage. Why? Why do it at all? Why not just make your own shitty haunted house movie and call it something else? The original was all about generating effective scares through sounds and acting and editing, this one tosses all that and is all about computer effects. The original is all about a character dynamic that is explosive under the pressurized environment of the house, and successfully makes it all the way to the end of the movie while maintaining the question of whether there are ghosts at all, or if its just the interplay of these characters. This one is all about running here, gaping at a CGI effect, running there, gaping at a CGI effect.

And let me ask you: are CGI effects scary? When you see a CGI face on a pillowcase, is that scary? When statues and gargoyles come to life, is that scary? Or are you sitting there, taken out of your involvement in the story, thinking "Oh, CGI effect. Oh look, another one." It's distracting, more than anything, but it's what the filmmakers here have based their entire movie around, having decided that filmmaking skill and editing prowess are essentially worthless. Also, since we all have some consciousness of the work CGI effects entail, you start to concentrate on why they chose each one, like... why have the walls breathe? Why moving gargoyles and statues? And let's not even go into the numerous terrified cherubs. Let me ask you: when you have a beatific cherub face, and it moves to make a frightened face, do you think that's scary? Or are you thinking that it's really kind of dumb?

And then you start thinking about how dumb Jan De Bont must be for thinking that's scary.

Then there's the story, and again, throw out anything interesting and involving, replace it with idiotic garbage--and really dense, involved, complicated garbage that ends up taking a lot of time and causing our characters to run here, run there in service of the idiotic plot that no one is involved in. The original put the backstory oh the house where it belonged--in the BACK--whereas this one makes unraveling the past into THE story, forcing it to introduce some frankly silly family relations, invent this whole ludicrous sinister plot, and then cast Nell as this redemptive figure for all these lost children's spirits... oh dear.

The only good thing that can be said is that this film won't diminish the luminance of the original in any way. There is also another version out there, which originated in a novel that was a response to Jackson's novel, called The Legend of Hell House. It's a bit of a stinker, but it at least has ideas and is fun to watch, with deliriously over-the-top performances, which makes it far more worth your time than this.