We gave it a D
The scariest thing about The Haunting is how awful it is. No, worse than awful: desperate. It’s a horror flick afraid of its own audience, as lost in its own geography as the fictional film crew in ”The Blair Witch Project.” But where the disorientation of the ”Blair Witch” kids leads fright lovers to a novel experience of terror and suggests an inventive new direction for the genre, the cluelessness of ”The Haunting” — a production grounded in old-fashioned horror conventions but undone by a new-fashioned ironic attitude — points to the death of spookiness.
Shirley Jackson’s eerie 1959 novel, ”The Haunting of Hill House,” is a ghost story but it’s also a journey of psychological and sexual awakening — especially for the virginal Eleanor, played by Lili Taylor in the film, who hears the spirits of the place calling to her. When, in thrall to voices (and her psyche), she ascends a perilous spiral staircase in an ”intoxicating” climb with the doctor in manly pursuit, that’s suspense — but it’s also sex, baby.
But — to quote David Self’s dull-edged script in this latest, willfully anti-analytical update — ”what is wrong with you people?” With Freudian subtext gone the way of ”I’m OK, You’re OK” and pre-ironic moviegoing innocence subverted by ”Scream” and its ilk, there’s little left to interest us, let alone haunt us, in ”The Haunting.” Sure, there are movie stars emoting madly when not tossing off jaunty one-liners. And there are plenty of frightfully busy sets, made even busier when they come alive — sculptures twisting and lunging, walls pulsing, floorboards popping, that sort of thing — via computer-generated showmanship.
But psychological depth — you know, something to push our fear buttons in the first place? Sorry, too risky to take on. Better to coast on the limited charms of Liam Neeson as the doctor (am I dreaming or did Neeson not say after ”The Phantom Menace” that he never wanted to act in front of a blue screen again? Please?), Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theo (”You don’t get this from a Martha Stewart catalog!” she says, witlessly, about Hill House’s outré decor), spectacularly miscast indie-style player Owen Wilson as Luke (”Teletubbies freak me out,” he says, idiotically, as if a pop-culture reference will make ”The Haunting” hip for the kiddies), and Taylor’s Eleanor, who runs down hallways a lot. Many, many hallways. At a good pace, as befits the direction of Jan De Bont, ”Speed” freak.
But too much velocity and the high winds of ”Twister” have, apparently resulted in De Bont’s temporary inability to sit still; instead, he has managed to make hallway running feel slow. Prowling from one giant close-up of a face to another, he barely has time for the pain. (Zeta-Jones to Neeson! Neeson to Wilson! Taylor to the creepy caretaker played by Bruce Dern!) It’s as if the director himself feels the clammy hands of studio indecision tightening around his throat.
No wonder the audience laughs derisively through scenes not meant for laughter. That isn’t the acrid odor of fear we smell in this house of horrors. It’s flop sweat.