Horrific House Upstages Actors
Imagine, if you will, the most ghostly mansion ever – complete with grotesque statues, vast cavern-like halls, creepy portraits, and a huge menacing fireplace. Now multiply this image a hundredfold, and you might come close to visualizing the frightening, spirit-ridden house featured in The Haunting. Unfortunately, the film's sets and special effects overwhelm its plot and cast.
In this remake of a 1963 horror classic (based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House), Liam Neeson portrays a psychologist who is researching fear. Under the guise of studying sleep disorders, he tricks three people into staying at the dreaded Hill House. His gullible subjects are played by Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson. None of these splendid actors do their best work here. Perhaps they knew their performances would be secondary to the horrific wonders of Hill House.
Production designer Eugenio Zanetti worked closely with director Jan De Bont during filming of The Haunting to build some of the largest and most elaborate sets ever created. Zanetti described his vision for Hill House as “The Shining meets Citizen Kane.” When the project was completed, De Bont observed, “A lot of the people working on the picture didn’t like being on the set at night because it did feel truly scary. It was a balance of beauty and horror.”
One terrifying scene in The Haunting shows an entire bedroom coming to life and attacking a guest. Other spine-tingling sequences involve statues moving eerily and a gossamer-like figure floating onto the pillow of an unsuspecting subject. Adding to the movie’s scarefest appeal are its sound effects. For example, sometimes the walls of Hill House sound like they are actually breathing heavily.
Does all this add up to a great movie? Sadly, no. Even films about the supernatural need sympathetic characters. As a lonely woman who just lost her mother, Taylor at least tries to reach the audience. But her performance, like the others, is submerged within the enormous and incredible Hill House entity.
(Released by DreamWorks SKG and rated “PG-13” for intense horror sequences.)