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[whitespace] 'The Haunting'
Photograph by Frank Masi

Fixer-Upper: Hill House has sidewalk appeal, but an overnight stay would drive away even the most desperate home buyer in 'The Haunting.'

CGI-glut swamps the poetry out of the remake of 'The Haunting'

By Richard von Busack

TERRIFYING, DARK and genuinely fearful: that's The Blair Witch Project, but now it's time to review The Haunting. The unnecessary remake, done in the traditional smash-and-startle of the modern horror movie, evaporates any real fear left over from the original novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Someone--perhaps DreamWorks CEO Steven Spielberg--decided that San Francisco author Shirley Jackson's pronouncement about Hill House, "Whatever walked there, walked alone," wasn't the right idea. Thus the house is peopled with benign child angels who are about as frightening as Casper the Friendly Ghost. The original 1963 film version, The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise, may be a classic, but it wasn't a hit. It's dark and full of loneliness and abandonment. Here is the chill of the grave, in both senses of the word. Naturally, all that mood had to go in the new version. Jan De Bont and his bland, derivative scriptwriter, David Self, have changed the dynamic to a basically happy story of a demon fought and overcome.

The plot: in the Berkshires of Massachusetts stands a lonely haunted castle called Hill House; into it go three sleep-disorder sufferers, lured there under false pretenses by a psychologist (Liam Neeson). Much time and suspense are wasted by explaining that the psychologist is actually studying fear and has deliberately brought his subjects to a frightening house without their knowing it. Owen Wilson, co-writer and star of Bottle Rocket, stands around like amiable, dopey comic relief as Luke--comic relief is the last thing a story like this needs. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Theo, the predatory gal, boasting of her Prada wardrobe and her bisexuality almost in the same breath. Her brashness is so unattractive that you understand why Lili Taylor's nervous Nell declines the invitation. Too bad; this sort of sexual tension would have interested more than a few viewers ... and (sigh) dismayed the children and frightened the horses. "It's about family, all about family," Taylor screams, into the computer-produced maelstrom at the end of The Haunting.

Eugenio Zanetti's production design is exciting, and the animators get to play with his creations, turning the glass rose-windows into huge bloodshot eyes and transforming the faces of bronze cherubs into masks of fear. Art that isn't supposed to move on its own and misbehaving mirrors--these are a few of the scariest things. But De Bont almost never fails to tip you off that an effect is coming. (He gives us plenty of close-ups on the cherubs, so if the TV commercials haven't blown that surprise, the director will.) One relief in this blown film is Taylor, a powerful actress who can never find a film tough enough for her talents. Given the thin-blooded indie films Taylor's been in, she really could do worse than to become a scream-queen. Wraithlike, white-faced with shock, Taylor indeed looks like a woman on the brink, and her casting was the best decision in a misjudged, misbegotten film.

The Haunting (PG-13; 115 min.), directed by Jan De Bont, written by David Self, photographed by Karl Walter Lindenlaub and starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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