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The secrets of ''The Haunting''

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There are many secrets lurking in the shadowy recesses of The Haunting. Here’s one of them: Liam Neeson, the Jedi stalwart Qui-Gon Jinn of Star Wars, is afraid of heights.

It’s a stunningly sunny spring day in Long Beach, Calif., but within the cavernous hangar-turned-soundstage that once housed Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose and now holds The Haunting‘s mammoth, menacing sets, it might as well be a dark and stormy night outside. Director Jan De Bont finds himself squeezed out of a cathedralish greenhouse set overcrowded by cameras, cranes, and crew. From the hallway outside, via monitor and microphone, he’s staging a haunted house staple: the rickety spiral stairwell that goes creak before collapsing in a flourish of heart-palpitating clatter. Inside, Neeson bites down hard on his acrophobia to climb a dozen squeaky steps to chase after Lili Taylor, who’s stranded atop the precarious structure.

”It was very hard to get him on the staircase,” De Bont says after wrapping the production. ”And we had to shoot that for a week.” It did produce the desired effect: Later, watching his stuntman tumble and dangle on the playback, Neeson utters his sweaty-palmed approval: ”F— me.”

DreamWorks hopes you’ll have the same reaction to The Haunting when it hits theaters on July 23. Here’s hoping it has the goods. Despite its abundance of virtues — an estimated $80 million budget; a director who knows how to thrill (Twister, Speed); a design, sound, and F/X team rich in Oscars; Entrapment and The Mask of Zorro beauty Catherine Zeta-Jones; and the blessing of his highness, DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg — The Haunting arrives exhausted from racing to meet its studio-mandated release date. The mad rush was further burdened by this summer movie season’s most ominous sign: reshoots (resulting partially from losing cinematographer Caleb Deschanel over creative differences one week into filming). And just last month, De Bont was back on the set with Taylor and Zeta-Jones, shooting new scenes. Taylor, making a leap from serious indie fare like I Shot Andy Warhol to leading roles in summertime extravaganzas, estimates she shuttled from New York to L.A. four times for The Haunting. ”You put a character to rest, then you have to bring it back,” she says. ”My brain felt like it was going to split open from the concentration level.”

Bursting brains in a horror film? How unoriginal (see Scanners). But The Haunting isn’t an original idea either. De Bont’s film is the second adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. Luckily for DreamWorks, its target market wasn’t breathing in 1963 when director Robert Wise’s Haunting was released, so the story should be fresh. To wit: Dr. Marrow (Neeson) lures three insomniacs — Nell (Taylor), a fragile soul searching for someplace to call home; Theo (Zeta-Jones), a cosmopolitan bisexual beauty; and Luke (Armageddon‘s Owen Wilson), a charming cynic — to the allegedly haunted Hill House under the pretense of helping them. In truth, he’s using them as test subjects for a research project about the experience of fear. Hill House, possessed with the souls of suffering children and one very foul father figure, has even more diabolical plans.

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