In a "psychological experiment" David Marrow plants three guinea pigs in a scarey house and feeds them a series of clues that create a frightening narrative. However, this "experiment" gets out of control when the clues are no longer fiction and the ghost story spirals out of control.
There are lots of really scary things about The Haunting. Unfortunately none of them pertain to what you actually experience during the movie. What is really terrifying about this second big screen adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting Of Hill House is the harsh light it throws on the old movies vs new movies debate. Whereas Robert Wise's 1963 version is a perfectly executed exercise in subtle, hinted at horrors, Jan De Bont's 1999 incarnation is a crass, overstuffed, woefully inept demonstration of things that go rum in the night.
The plot device employed to get a group of disparate stereotypes to stay in a big old scary house is that psychologist David Marrow (Neeson) is conducting an experiment into the nature of group fear under the guise of an investigation into insomnia. Taking on board three guinea pigs - sensitive Eleanor (Taylor), cosmopolitan bisexual artist Theo (Zeta-Jones) and cynical chancer Luke (Wilson) - Marrow starts spinning out a backstory and suggesting clues to create a fiction in the minds of his subjects. Wouldn't ya know that events supersede his scare mongering tactics and, oh, the risible rest is just too awful to contemplate.
Clearly not his forte, De Bont has little clue how to develop chemistry or build tensions within the group. What is unexpected is that he seems equally lost when orchestrating the shocks. The mandatory slow, supposedly tension-twining opening is dragged out far too long and despite all the later full-on CG phantasmagoria - spectral children crawl through sheets, glass shatters only to take on a life of its own, a portrait lunges out of its frame - the biggest jump comes courtesy of an old-fashioned practical effect you'd find on any fairground ghost train. Moreover surely one of the joys of a Haunting modernisation should be the original's famous "banging" noises re-enacted in Dolby Digital Surround EX, yet for all their technical prowess even these shudders are mistimed.
Everything about the movie is overcooked - every door creaks, every curtain billows big time - creating a pantomime milieu rather than anything that could be genuinely unnerving. So intent is De Bont to make the house a player in the story that he wastes oceans of screen time on it: we are frequently treated to interminable shots of characters wandering around empty, overly designed corridors accompanied by left over "little girl moaning" sound effects from Poltergeist. The desired effect is menacing portent. The net result is audience rigor mortis.
If you're looking for plusses, the exterior of Hill House is magnificent, De Bont occasionally throws in an energising camera move, and it's nice to see Bruce Dern as a crazy caretaker. Cynics might derive glee from Zeta-Jones' misjudged moments or the unintentionally funny dialogue - the housekeeper's (Marian Seldes) overstated invocation of doom ("There's not a town for at least ten miles") is priceless. Yet however you dress it up, laughs where there should be frights is patently piss poor.
However you dress it up, laughs where there should be frights is patently piss poor.